A Sketchy First Draft of SMPT ‘Spirit Birth’

(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.)

Introduction

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.

Philosophical Advantages

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.

Philosopical Disadvantages

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.

Conclusion

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.

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26 Responses to “A Sketchy First Draft of SMPT ‘Spirit Birth’”


  1. 1 Geoff J October 25, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    What is your thesis? That literal (viviparous?) spirit birth is true or that it is a good idea to teach and believe in literal spirit birth? Those are not the same thing. It may be useful to believe and teach it even if it is not true.

    The fact that a general belief in literal spirit birth is popular among Mormons (including Mormon leaders) is not really in question.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson October 25, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Geoff:

    The last part of my introductions states:

    ‘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.’

    The above may be taken as a thesis statement. (Perhaps it is not a good one, perhaps I am not sticking to it.)

    I do not feel I am in a position to declare absolute truth. So, I am defending spirit birth as a powerful philosophical idea within Mormonism.

  3. 3 J. Stapley October 25, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I think a big advantage (though it is not unalloyed) is that the there is a fairly long tradition of Church leaders buying into it. BY is of course problematic, but Orson Pratt, though problematic for his time, establishes something of a long tradition.

    I think another major disadvantage is the problem of evil. If God is good, why wouldn’t he create spirits that were all good?

  4. 4 Eric Nielson October 25, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Thanks J:

    I should have included a tripartite explanation with disadvantage #1. I think with the tripartite/spirit birth combo the problem of evil is no more of a problem for spirit birth ideas than any other model.

  5. 5 Geoff J October 25, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    I think you would be better off saying you are exploring the advantages and disadvantages of believing/teaching>/i> literal spirit birth Eric. The way you word things now doesn’t make much sense.

  6. 6 Geoff J October 25, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    I think you would be better off saying you are exploring the advantages and disadvantages of believing/teaching literal spirit birth Eric. The way you word things now doesn’t make much sense.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson October 25, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Hmmm. I thought that is what I was saying.

  8. 8 Geoff J October 25, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Eric,

    Hmmm… Maybe you were saying that. It would be more clear if you replaced “a literal belief in spirit birth” with “a belief in literal spirit birth”.

    Also, I think it would be more clear if you replaced “I hope to persuade the reader that spirit birth is a powerful and sound (although speculative) idea within Mormonism” with something more clear. Maybe “I hope to show that the advantages of believing in literal spirit birth outweigh any disadvantages of believing it” or something. No one disputes that the idea is powerful for people so no need to show that. And you can’t show that it is true so that should not be your purpose either.

  9. 9 J. Stapley October 25, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Hm. I don’t think that is particulalry obvious, Eric. We generally believe that our current bodies have a tremendous influence on us. As you are arguing analogically, wouldn’t a spirit body also have influence?

  10. 10 Mark D. October 26, 2009 at 12:40 am

    J.Stapley: If God is good, why wouldn’t he create spirits that were all good?

    Because he can’t. Not if libertarian free will or anything like it is metaphysically fundamental part of reality. LFW is one of these things without which it is nearly impossible for any theology to make sense.

  11. 11 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Geoff:

    Okay, I will probably make those simple changes. If that is the biggest problem you see then I must have hit this one out of the park.

    J:

    You are making a great point. But this is not fundamentally a paper about the problem of evil. I am not seeing where spirit birth (particularly with a tripartite spin) has any advantage or disadvantage when it comes to the problem of evil. This is why I did not address it here.

  12. 12 SmallAxe October 26, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I think you’re on to something, but may still want to refine your thesis a bit more. What is a “philosophical advantage”? Sometimes rephrasing helps to clarify.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Thanks SmallAxe.

    You philosopher types seem to question everything!

  14. 14 Matt W. October 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Still working through this, but just some random thoughts to add:

    Advantages
    1. Literal Spirit Birth gives a palpable differentiator between Man and Animal.
    2. If God is literally giving birth to children via a natural process, he has no more control over the temperment and will of his children than a human parent. Thus no Problem of Evil issue

    Disadvantages
    1. The current understanding of sexual reproduction is best explained in terms of organic evolution. It is thus difficult to understand how these processes, which are primarily geared toward survival and proliferation, would be eternal and intrinsic to a divine being.
    2. If God is literally giving birth to children via a natural process, he has no more control over the temperment and will of his children than a human parent. Thus a major issue with the effectiveness of God.

  15. 15 SmallAxe October 26, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Well… you are writing a paper for SMPT;>) It’s more a matter of clarity than anything else. Given your list of advantages I’m not sure why these are necessarily ‘philosophical’. Most of them seem ‘practical’, which is why I’m questioning what you mean by philosophical.

    Given what little I know about this paper, I’d say that the thesis is something more along the lines of: Belief in a literal spirit birth is one of several viable alternatives for LDS regarding the creation of spirits. It is the most advantageous in terms of encouraging loving relationships between human beings as well as between human beings and deity.

    Something like that. The disadvantages you list seem to be problems with the coherency of the argument, and if you want to keep them you should probably relate them more directly to the advantages.

  16. 16 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Matt:

    Thanks for the additions, I may very well ad these in.

    SmallAxe:

    Your advise is good, defining what criteria I use for ‘advantage’ would be a reasonable addition to make. You are also making me think if I should change the heading to ‘arguments for’ and ‘arguments against’ rather than ‘philosophicl advantages / disadvantages’.

  17. 17 Matt W. October 26, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Another big disadvantage with the literal approach is that it creates some issues around the Churches practice of polygamy in terms of Gender Equality. (ie- Baby factories, Men get multiple women, etc.) I am not sure we have an avenue currently available within our theology to appropriately address those issues, however. I think failure to address such an issue would get you eaten alive by any women theologians present.

  18. 18 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Another excellent point Matt. Personally I think it is/was a mistake to assume some polygamy free-for-all in the CK. Unless we are willing to assume several times as many women as men it doesn’t work at all.

    I also think that an eternal amount of time would allow us to consider that a small percentage of time would be associated with spirit birthing. And we should also consider that perhaps spirit birth may be much less difficult in the hereafter.

    But, yes, I ought to address this as well. I would like to avoid being either eaten or buried alive.

  19. 19 J. Stapley October 26, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    I hadn’t thought about it too much, but in reading I your response to Matt, I think it is not sufficient. If all humanity is the offspring of one couple, which I imagine is your position, and if God is the creator and populator of wordls without number (the accepted Mormon possition), then the amount of time spent in the individual creative act (even if twins and triplets are common), let alone in gestationn overwhelms just about all other possibilities.

    One possibility would be to say that earth is the only inhabitted planet in the universe, and since the creation of the universe (or since the creation of the earth if there is an accellerated gestation), God hasn’t been doing anything other than creating spirits.

  20. 20 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    J:

    I think an eternal past can account for all of this. I think it is unnecessary to look at it as a forced, constant, horrible process.

    Wasn’t Eve told that sorrow in conception would be greatly multiplied. Perhaps the experience in mortality is much, much worse than among immortals.

  21. 21 J. Stapley October 26, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Oh, I don’t think it necessarily a horrible process. But I think the infinite past thing doesn’t hold up very well. As Mormons, we believe that there are “worlds without number.” I think that there is a pretty good argument for close to an infinite amount of past worlds. That is to say that apparently, God has not had an infinite past to prepare for our world.

  22. 22 Eric Nielson October 26, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Hmm, I don’t know. It seems like infinite matches up well with infinite.

    Couldn’t someone make the same claims about eternal spirits (fully formed) being adopted by God? If the spirit adoption process takes any time, do you not still have infinite spirits on infinite worlds during infinite time? How is there any advantage there?

  23. 23 J. Stapley October 26, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    That is a good point. I can imagine God engaging with billions of individuals in multi-tasking way, much as he is currently able to listen and answer the prayers of humanity. The temporality of your proposed creative act is what sort of throws me for a loop (when multiplied by billions or trillions or more).

  24. 24 J. Stapley October 26, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    …that is to say that you seem to be arguing for a unique and individual creative act, with and undetermined time for complete creation to manifest, during which no other creative act is possible.

  25. 25 Eric Nielson October 27, 2009 at 6:47 am

    With an infinite amount of time, I see no reason why not.


  1. 1 SMPT Paper on Spirit Birth ….. ACCEPTED! « Small and Simple Trackback on January 6, 2010 at 9:15 am

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