Spirit Birth and Ontological Sameness

Joseph Smith’s teaching that something about us (intelligence/mind/spirit) has an eternal past, and was never created nor made, is a remarkable thing with many implications on Mormon theology.  One of the obvious results of such a teaching is that it ultimately eliminates the creator/creature relationship between God and man.  But with the creator/creature relationship eliminated, what then is the relationship between God and man?

One of the spinoff thoughts from my SMPT presentation is that of ontological similarity between God and man, and how important that is to Mormon beliefs.  But does the eternal nature of our intelligence (on its own) guarantee such sameness?  I don’t think it does.

One can imagine two beings that both have an eternal past.  Does this guarantee that both beings are the same type of being?  I would say no.  They might be, but they might not be.  In fact, their eternal past may be the only thing that the two being have in common.

This is part of why I prefer a spirit birth type model.  If God is the heavenly parent of begotten spirit bodies, then this provides a firm possibility, if not guarantee, that these spirit offspring have some ontological sameness with God.  Adoption models do not provide the same thing.  If God is nothing more than the adoptive parent of the intelligence/mind/spirit then there is nothing in place to guarantee that such adopted beings are ontologically similar to God whatsoever.  They might be, or they might not be.

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20 Responses to “Spirit Birth and Ontological Sameness”


  1. 1 J. Stapley August 25, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    This is an interesting argument.

    If God is nothing more than the adoptive parent of the intelligence/mind/spirit then there is nothing in place to guarantee that such adopted beings are ontologically similar to God whatsoever.

    The only guarantee would be God. That is, he wouldn’t adopt something dissimilar, which brings us to animals. I would think that you believe that God does not consider animals his children. In an adoptive model, he doesn’t adopt them because they are dissimilar. What about a spirit creation model? God creates the spirits of humans and animals both. Why is one his child and the other not?

  2. 2 J. Stapley August 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    …sorry for the hinky html.

  3. 3 Eric Nielson August 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Why would he not adopt something dissimilar? Perhaps he does.

    I don’t think either you or I would agree with an ex nihilo spirit creation, and I think Mormonism does (or should) reject such a model. In such a case as you suggest I would say that niether humans nor animals would be his children. How would they be?

  4. 4 J. Stapley August 25, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Why would he not adopt something dissimilar? Perhaps he does.

    Hm. Presuming an adoptive model, it is clear that God does not adopt certain spirits (animals). The spirits he does adopt must be more similar to him than to animals. Though somewhat tautological, I don’t see the necessity of a possibility that God adopt something dissimilar.

    …I think Mormonism does (or should) reject such a model.

    There are prominent people in the BYU Religious Ed. dept. that teach it.

    In such a case as you suggest I would say that niether humans nor animals would be his children.

    Let me clarify, then, as I don’t think I communicated well. I understand that by “spirit birth” you are referring to a creative act that results in the formation of a spirit (i.e., spirit creation). Under this model, God is responsible for the formation of human spirits as well as animal spirits. Why is one a child and not the other?

  5. 5 Eric Nielson August 25, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Well, J.

    I was being somewhat flippant with the dissimilar adoption. Whether a being of any kind is adopted or not, is not a guarantee of similarity. I would assume that is such an adoption question, the adopted ‘metaphorical’ children might be more similar to God than spirits that were not adopted ‘metaphorical’ children. Yet significant dissimilarities could well remain – which is the point.

    I would need more information than your characterization of the BYU educational department to know what is believed or is being taught. I think in most cases it is a lack of philosophical rigor at play than fundamental beliefs.

    Since I favor a tripartite model, spirit birth is not an absolute creation. So under a spirit birth/tripartite model, one being is a child because he is the procreated offspring of the parent, while the other is not. There may be other dissimilarities, but this is the fundamental one.

  6. 6 J. Stapley August 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    one being is a child because he is the procreated offspring of the parent, while the other is not.

    You may have mentioned this before, but I don’t remember, if animal spirits aren’t procreated, then how are they formed? And why would there be a different sort of formation process for different kinds of spirits? And what is the difference?

    On the BYU educational department, see, for example, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Straitforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions, 93-94.

    Regarding flippancy, I hope you realize that while we may disagree in our personal beliefs, I’m not asking you questions to be a jerk. I really think this issue resolves differently than you have described it and want to 1) either understand what I am not understanding or 2) make sure that my evaluation is correct.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson August 25, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    I personally don’t care very much about animal spirits. Maybe they are procreated, maybe not. The answer is I don’t know, and I don’t care (very much).

    So, I am wide open on that front. Procreated animal spirits – fine. Ex nihilo creation of animal spirits – fine. Immaterial animal spirits – fine. Animals with no spirits at all – fine.

    I just don’t care very much, and I am not bothered that their model of existence may be completely different from ours.

  8. 8 Matt W. August 25, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Interesting conversation. J.- really enjoyed your first comment. I don’t want to jump on the dissimilar/similar argument too much, but a major issue is in defining the line of differentiation, especially regarding at one point in the evolutionary chain man crossed over to meet the criteria of being in the image of god. Are Orangutans on the human side of the line, etc?

  9. 9 J. Stapley August 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Agreed, Matt. It is my perception that animal spirits are a fairly well documented part of Mormon cosmology. As you note, as we approach evolution then, there comes an interesting point at which the animal becomes human (or an individual capable of being integrated into the family of God). I think it is an important question, what the difference between a spirit on one side of that line versus a spirit on the other side of the line.

    It seems to me that a summary of our observations are as follows:

    Eric
    Unless God procreates the human spirit, we can’t be assured whether human spirits are similar to God’s spirit.

    Non-human spirits and their ontology are outside of my cosmological model.

    J.
    There is no reason to suspect that God would adopt a spirit dissimilar to his own (that is what adoption is).

    Adoption easily accounts for non-human spirit ontology.

  10. 10 Bookslinger August 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I think there is also a possibility that some spirit children are birthed and some are adopted.

    I’ve been trying to sort out the scriptures talking about “eternal life” versus “eternal death”, but yet taking into account that those who are not exalted still have some kind of “immortality” up through (at least) the “end of time” which is referenced in scriptures.

    I’m considering whether the “end of time” (when “time will be no more”), or in other words, the point at which the heavens and earth are “wrapped as a scroll” coincides with the collapse of the universe (or the collapse of a galaxy).

    What happens to non-exalted but resurrected humans (TLK, TRK, & the lower 2 rungs of the CK) when the universe collapses, or when “the end of time” is reached, or when the heavens and earth are wrapped as a scroll? Is that point another meaning of “the second death” ? Do their intelligences (or intelligence+ spiritbody, or intelligence+spiritbody+physicalbody) go back into some cosmic “pool” again, and be elligible for “adoption” by another exalted couple?

    The words never/forever, and immortal/eternal can have nuances of meaning when you consider that our language can only go as far as the scope or parameters of what Heavenly Father is allowing us to perceive. If we accept the scientific view that “time is a local phenomena” and that there exist dimensions beyond/above our 3-dimensional plus linear-time existence, then “forever” or “immortal” may only apply up to the point where “time is no more”, or the collapse of the universe (the “Big Crunch”).

    In other words “forever” may not truely be equivalent to infinity, but only up to the end-point of the existence of this universe. After that endpoint, beyond the existence of this universe, then “eternal” and “eternity” are in effect. Those who are exalted will live into that eternity, and those who are not exalted, whom the scriptures describe as suffering “eternal death”, might somehow cease to exist as embodied tripartite individuals.

    My question is then what that “eternal death” entails, as in how much the 3 components get broken apart, or broken down. Is the intelligence removed from the spirit body, as a spirit body can be removed from a physical body?

    Intelligence and spirit and physical elements are described by Joseph Smith as eternal, which I take to mean continuing to exist into infinity. But he left unsaid what form or assembly (assemblage?) they continue in. The atoms and molecules of a physical body continue to exist after the dissolution of said body.

    But are there atoms (consituent particles) of a spirit body that continue to exist after the dissolution (“eternal death”) of the spirit body? Does it all go back into a big cosmic reservoir of spirit matter, or does it continue to exist attached to the intelligence in the form of an individual?

    And if the spirit body becomes separated from the intelligence (after “the end of time” or the collapse of the universe) does the intelligence still exist as an individual, or does it get mixed back into a cosmic reservoir?

    Does a non-exalted intelligence get put back into a waiting line to be adopted by the next exalted couple?

    Several general authorities over the years have described a process in which an intelligence is “clothed” in a spirit body by Heavenly parents. Perhaps those are birthed, and the “recyled” individuals (from past universes) consisting of intelligence+spiritbody are adopted.

    But, all this is navel-gazing and looking beyond the mark. I’m still struggling with faith, repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end.

  11. 11 WVS August 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    There seems to be some precedent for exalted animals. So spirit parents of various species would be implied by that in exactly the same way it was inferred for humans (I’m speaking in a Mormon historical sense, not a theological one.) But what *is* an animal?

  12. 12 Aaron R. August 26, 2010 at 5:55 am

    I take a slightly different approach to this issue, which cuts against Eric’s argument, but which might be a reflection of a lack of philosophical rigor on my part.

    In Mormon cosmology, it seems that, ontological similarity is assumed. Therefore the discussion of origins is developed in that context. Consequently removing that assumption does not help you re-establish the necessity of ‘spirit birth’ in developing ontological similarity but rather it opens up a range of other problematic philosophical questions concerning apotheosis in general.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson August 26, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Bookslinger:

    You bring up so much that I am not going to try to address it all. I tend to take eternal more literally than you do, although it may make some sense for some spirits to be … recycled. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    WVS:

    I don’t like going to spirit parents of animals because ther are those who would mock the idea of heavenly chicken fathers for example. I am not sure what an animal is, but I know it when I see one.

    Aaron R.

    I think I look at this ‘backwards’ from you. To me Mormon cosmology generally guarantees ontalogical similarity, not assumes it, and our discussions of the implications develop from it – not the other way around. It is when one removes the cosmology that it becomes necessary to re-establish the necessity of spirit birth in order to regain such ontological similarity.

  14. 14 aquinas August 26, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Eric, I agree with you that Joseph Smith’s revelations effectively eliminated the traditional dividing line that developed in Christian cosmology between the uncreated and eternal God on the one hand, and the created or creature on the other. I would go further to say that we might even explore whether Joseph Smith’s revelations also eliminated ‘ontology’ itself as a fundamental building block of theology. Blake Ostler, for example, has argued that the way of doing Christian theology for centuries has been to engage in an ‘onto-theology’ that assumes and begins from this essential division of being as part of its architecture.

    It seems to me, however, that you are still working from an onto-theological framework. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I don’t view ‘spirit-birth’ as a solution to a disparity between different kinds of beings within Mormonism, for the reasons that you cite initially in your post, namely that Joseph Smith already did away with that division. Yet, as Aaron points out, you seem to be conjecturing that divisions could still hypothetically exist, that ‘spirit-birth’ could hypothetically function as an solution to eliminate such divisions that could exist. My question is whether and how well such hypothetical scenarios fit the scriptural data and historical evolution of the doctrine.

    For example, one of the salient characteristics within Christian theology is that God made man in his image, and as a corollary that all the animals that God created were not made in the image of God. Thus, man is unique among God’s creations in that man has God’s image. Mormon theology has typically limited its understanding of “image” to physicality and thus it has served as an apologetic for God’s anthropomorphism in Mormonism, but Christian theology, especially Catholic theology, has also understood ‘God’s image’ to include free will as well, or broadly speaking God’s communicable attributes. Thus, man is unique from the beginning. In Mormon theology, these attributes were expanded further, breaking out of the traditional divisions. Perhaps Mormonism did not need to find more meaning in the phrase “God’s image” because in Joseph’s world, the attributes of God and agency were assumed to be the destiny of man from the eternities, even before mortality. Thus, I see the elimination of the creature-creator dichotomy to be necessary in Mormonism, not so that Joseph could continue the ‘onto-theology’ tradition, but because the division could not contain Joseph’s more ambitious, expansive and even radical theological realignment of man’s relationship to God.

    A second example, is that you seem to be arguing that adoption theology is inferior to ‘spirit-birth’ because it cannot guarantee ontological sameness with God, because perhaps God could hypothetically adopt animals as his children. Yet, adoption theology was not created as a solution to ontological disparity. The function of adoption theology seems, rather, to teach us about our covenantal relationship with God, not a biological one. By entering into a covenant with God we “become” sons and daughters of God. This is the assumed or de facto theology of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. Furthermore, I’m not aware of any teaching that animals can enter into covenants with God in this respect or become his sons and daughters.

    Your post asks what the relationship between God and man is, and it seems to me that Joseph focuses more on a social relationship rather than an ontological one. Thus, as Joseph Smith taught, God schools the weaker intelligences and institutes laws to help them progress. In this sense, God truly becomes our father and we become his sons and daughters. And Joseph continues by teaching that the “same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” (D&C 130:2:). I think adoption theology is highly significant and theologically rich but it has been overshadowed by spirit-birth because the typical answer is that we were born sons and daughters already in heaven, and yet the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants operate on a different framework that we must covenant with God and through that covenant become sons and daughters of God. Thus, I don’t advocate adoption because I see it as a solution to ontological disparity (which I don’t necessarily see as Joseph’s project). Rather, I merely seek to explore it because it is the dominant or even sole theology found in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, although often overlooked and ignored in our theological discourse.

  15. 15 Eric Nielson August 26, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    aq:

    While Christian theology had an assumption of ontological division, which Joseph Smith’s teaching of eternal intelligences substantially refuted, this teaching on its own still leaves the door of division open a crack. Without a literal parent-child relationship, there will always be a potential crack. I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

    To me your third paragraph seems to enforce the need to remove division, which seems to motivate my concern.

    To suggest that what is at stake is either spirit birth or covenant relationship is silly. Of course it is both, not either. Same with the social relationship, it is not either-or, it is simply both.

  16. 16 Eric Nielson August 27, 2010 at 7:19 am

    As I thought about this more last night, it seems … unobservant to say something like – God would not adopt beings that were dissimilar to Him (wink wink), when we know full well that this is functionally what most of Christianity suggests. An absolute, mysterious God who is completely different from depraved humanity, yet ‘adopts’ them and graciously saves them for some reason. I feel than Mormonism is able to keep this ontological gap ‘wolf’ away from the door more through the idea of spirit birth than through the idea of the uncreated intelligence. Although both ideas work to that end.

  17. 17 J. Stapley August 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Interesting. My perspective is that Joseph Smith’s cosmology (on both sides of the mortal divide) obliterates the possibility that adoption is what creedalists believe. I think a parallel argument to what you have laid out would be to say:

    “it seems…unobservant to say something like – God is perfect, when we know full well that this is functionally what most of Christianity suggests.”

  18. 18 Eric Nielson August 27, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    One of us does not understand – perhaps me. Another parallel that makes more sense would be:

    If we were to dismiss the first vision story, Mormonism would never talk about the Godhead as if it were the trinity, when we know full well …

    Generally I am trying to say that it seems unobservant to say that Mormons would never start believing some ‘false doctrine’ that most christian religions believe, but don’t because of a core idea within Mormonism, if we were to dismiss that core idea.

    Again, it seems to me that much of the christian world functionally believe in an adoption type model between God and man, AND believes that God and man are entirely different types of beings. So it doesn’t make sense to me that this combination could not happen in many people’s minds.

  19. 19 Bookslinger August 28, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Eric, are you open to the possibility that the pre-existing intelligence is adopted but the spirit body which clothes it is birthed?

    And if birthed is the wrong word, then perhaps the spirit body was fashioned or assembled out of elemental, or lesser-organized, spirit matter.

    (A physical animal body is not a physical human body, but both are organized out of the same elemental physical matter. So, perhaps spirit bodies are likely congruent: an animal spirit body is not a human spirit body, but may be organized out of the same elemental spirit matter. That is how I envision spirit bodies coming into being or “fashioned” of pre-existing elemental spirit matter.)

    I still postulate that we can’t truly understand what happened soley based on current scriptures and our current understanding of Joseph Smith’s use of the word “eternal”. We don’t really know what exactly he meant by “eternal” and “one eternal round”.

    I have a strong suspicion that “eternal” does not necessarily equate to “infinity” going backwards or forwards. But might be an adjective meaning that the object existed (or came into being) prior to the creation of or outside of our 3-dimensional-plus-linear-time universe.

    In my mind-picture, the time and place where Heavenly Father and us intelligences resided prior to the creation of this 3-dimensional-plus-linear-time universe is called “eternity”.

    And “eternal” could an adjective applied to people and things that existed, or came into being, outside of this 3-dimensional-plus-linear-time universe.

    And the time and place where Heavenly Father and the Church of the Firstborn (His exalted children) will exist after the passing of this 3-dimensional-plus-linear-time universe (after the “Big Crunch”) will also be called “eternity”.

    Hence, Heavenly Father existed as an exalted being “from eternity” and will exist “to eternity”.

    Then, when the Church of the Firstborn go on to create their own universes for their spirit children, they will then be known in their respective universes as having existed “from eternity” and “to eternity” from that reference point.

  20. 20 Eric Nielson August 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Bookslinger:

    I do not have strong opinions about the bulk of you last comment. Knock yourself out!

    As far as your initial questions, since I am a tripartite guy, I am not really against people looking at the intelligence part of us as being ‘adopted’. I don’t take much of a stand on that because I do not take much of a stand on what an intelligence is. Does it have matter? Does it have agency? I sort of suspect so, but I don’t put much into my impressions of this.

    My contention is that the idea of mankind being begotten spirit children of heavenly parents is powerful and important to Mormon theology, and should not be dismissed. I think Mormonism looses these important things if there is anything less than a literal parent/child relationship of the offspring kind. I just don’t want to give up on this idea.


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