Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 1

Sterling McMurrin was invited to give a series of lectures at four institutions of higher learning in Utah about the philosophical underpinnings of the Mormon religion. At about the same time, Ohio State University requested that the church present a lecture on Mormonism. Harold B. Lee asked McMurrin to present these lectures to fulfill the request. These lectures are available in the book ‘The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion’. I have read this book a couple of times and have really enjoyed it. I would like to outline the book to help me keep some of the ideas straight, and as a way to recommend the book to friends and family.

Part one of McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion addresses the concept of reality. While he does a good job of comparing the beliefs of Mormonism with the teachings of other religions, I will only focus on his presentation of Mormon beliefs in very small and simple terms. (This is for my benefit).

1. The first section has to do with naturalism and supernaturalism. He rightly describes the Mormon view of reality as having a naturalistic and a humanistic quality. It is typical for Mormons to view even God himself as being natural rather than supernatural. That God is part of the universe, and that there are ‘laws‘ that even God must obey are common ideas. Mormonism rejects the idea of creation out of nothing, and thus Mormon theology has a non-absolutistic character.

The Mormon conception of miracles is that the miraculous event is natural, and is simply not understood because of deficiencies in human knowledge. Mormonism views God as being in time and space, and presents God as having a body of flesh and bones, and having a past, present and future.

2. Section two deals with necessity and contingency. Again, it is pointed out that there is a belief in Mormonism that the world was not created in the ultimate sense, and that the elements are eternal. In addition, there is the idea that even human souls or spirits were uncreated, beginningless entities referred to as minds or intelligences. It was clearly Joseph Smith’s view that whatever is ultimate in the human soul is self-existent.

Necessity refers to something that must exist, or can not, not exist. Something is contingent if it must depend on something else for its existence. Mormonism maintains that even man is a necessary being, which is in opposition to classical Christian orthodoxy.

3. Section three is on materialism. Materialism is the idea that anything real has matter. Mormonism is unique in its consistent and emphatic defense of materialism. Mormonism teaches that even spirits have matter associated with them. So Mormon-style materialism is not a denial of spiritual beings. Mormonism teaches a dualism of the spirit and the body, yet both are material. It should be pointed out also that this materialism rejects the determinism that materialism is sometimes associated with. A commitment to libertarian free will is maintained.

4. Monism and pluralism are addressed in section four. Monism is the idea that all reality is one, or that there is only one reality. Pluralism is the idea that reality is a composite of more than one entity. Mormonism is thoroughly pluralistic. This is apparently not terribly unique, except perhaps in the view that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are described as three ontologically separate beings.

One of the implications of this thorough pluralism is how knowledge is obtained. In this there is a clear belief in personal revelation. And for Mormonism, revelation goes beyond intuition, and has significant leanings towards common-sense empiricism.

5. Section five deals with being and becoming. Mormonism is strongly in the becoming camp, and fully stresses the dynamic view of reality – even for God. For Mormons, God is a temporal being with a past, present and future, and is genuinely involved in the processes of the world. Mormon thought is oriented towards a grand conception of a dynamic cosmic process in infinite time and space in which God’s involvement and human freedom play crucial roles.

6. Section six is on universals and particulars. Particulars are things like white objects or just acts, while universals are whiteness and justice. Mormonism has strong leanings towards universals when it comes to morals and principles, and even exhibits this tendency when it comes to the church or to priesthood.

For Mormons, eternal laws are universal, even if they are not clearly articulated. And thus there are moral eternal laws that even God is subject to rather than they subject to him.

So there you have it, the Mormon concept of reality in a simple nutshell. I will try and review Part II soon. While I am no expert in this stuff, I would welcome comments on these reviews.

18 Responses to “Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 1”

  1. 1 smallaxe June 17, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Hey thanks for this!

  2. 2 Eric Nielson June 17, 2008 at 11:31 am


    You’re welcome. Thanks for reading.

  3. 3 Clark June 17, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I think my comment ended up in spam somehow.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson June 17, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Sorry Clark. I checked the comments, and there is nothing there from you. I know of your interest in this type of thing, and would be very glad to read your comments. Please try again.

  5. 5 Mogget June 18, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Very helpful Eric. I’ve not read this so I’ll be following along as you go.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson June 18, 2008 at 11:30 am


    Thanks for the kind words. I must say that I am disappointed, however. Discovering that there is something out there that you have not read shatters my image of you :).

  7. 7 Geoff J June 18, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I’m a fan of this little book. See the posts in my brief reading club on it here. DMI Dave and Clark both posted on it some time ago as well.

  8. 8 Eric Nielson June 18, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Thanks for the link Geoff.

  9. 9 LDS Anarchist June 19, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Necessity refers to something that must exist, or can not, not exist. Something is contingent if it must depend on something else for its existence. Mormonism maintains that even man is a necessary being, which is in opposition to classical Christian orthodoxy.

    Is McMurrin saying that Mormons believe that we do not depend upon God for our existence, that we can not, not exist? Is this what he means by saying that man is a necessary being? Maybe I am understanding his meaning wrong, but if this is, indeed, his meaning, that doesn’t sound right. Does not Lehi state that if there were no God, “all things must vanish away?” So, it seems to me that man would be a contingent being, depending upon the existence, will and power of God for his own existence.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson June 19, 2008 at 7:16 am


    I think McMurrin is getting at what is ultimate to our existence, which is sometimes called intelligence.

    The D&C states that the elements are eternal, and that intelligence can not be created nor made (or something to that affect).

    So I think Lehi’s statement may be a bit over-the-top and should not have a strong interpretation placed on it. Our circumstances would be much, much different with no God, but we (or at least the materials that make us up) would still exist.

    Excellent observation.

  11. 11 Robert June 25, 2008 at 3:29 am

    This may get schizophrenic, so I hope the following makes sense! lol :))

    I wonder if pluralism and monism are two sides of the same coin. As I’ve been reading The Truth The Way The Life by BH Roberts, he makes a similar distinction between these two ways of viewing the Intelligence, coming down on the ‘side’ of pluralism, as well; that the Intelligences are pluralistic.

    Yet, he also says that because of the way in which all Intelligences come together and interact within and through creation according to many factors of interaction, this creates the ‘whole’ which is ‘one’.

    I tend to see and understand this in terms of the Intelligence/Mind being ‘whole’ – that is self-existing through a pluralistic unfolding and projecting of itself (kind of like looking at and exploring yourself through an infinte number of ways) that demonstrates each individual Intelligence as being, in and of itself, this eternal Intelligence unfolded in a given projected state with manifest and latent qualities and characteristics for further development and unfoldment of the projection – based on the choices and ‘direction’ of development the Intelligence takes through a given projection.

    The ‘whole’ of the infinite and eternal universe is ‘one’ (not necessarily in a numerical sense) precisely because the Intelligence exists as a ‘whole’- yet the whole of Intelligence projects pluralistically.

    Matter, then, because it cannot be destroyed and is always existing in some transformative state that is uncreated and self-existing, again as I understand it, IS the reflection of Mind or Intelligence, itself – namely ‘us’. One cannot destroy matter because that would mean one could destroy the thing that it is an eternal projection of – namely Intelligence!

    I don’t see matter being separate from Intelligence in a ‘hard dualism’ sense (matter existing apart from or separately from Intelligence) – but that it emerges infinitely without beginning or end as a ‘reflection’ of Intelligence viewing itself through a plurality of masks that are not mere ‘parts’ of the whole Intelligence, but are ‘it’ in and of themselves. I think this is relfected in the old saying that the human being contains the whole universe within himself, and manifests it according to his current state of existence that is constantly transforming. I think this is true of every other ‘thing’ in the universe, as well.

    This, thus, is the constant and eternal nature of the diverse, pluralistic – yet whole – universe: Intelligence(s).

    I should get some water now – lol. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. 12 Eric Nielson June 25, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Yeah. I’m thirsty also.

    It is difficult for me to sort out exactly what is being said in some of these conversations. This may well be a ‘me’ problem.

    I have no idea what an ‘intelligence’ is – and I simply believe it is a self-existing eternal something that represents what we were prior to a spirit birth event. I favor the tripartite model express by Roberts in the ‘Immortality of Man’ essay.

  13. 13 Robert June 25, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    I understand those ‘me’ problems. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Well, I would say that an ‘intelligence’ is the ‘root identity’ of what we are that views itself through pluralistic projections that, each in turn, gives ‘birth’ to more and more projections for Intelligence to ‘see’ itself through – that all unfold and continue on eternally according to their chosen path of development.

    There’s no ‘prior’ to in terms of Intelligence – it simply always is. It’s not an easy Reality to recognize, but here’s a few illustrations that might help.

    We tend to see ourselves and our identity only in terms of the ‘chain of beings’ that brought us to our present, mortal state and, then, follow this chain forward to what we might become in the order of things as we’ve been taught by those who have already passed through our current state and exist in higher realms. This isn’t untrue, of course. This fact of existence is one reason why the Prophet has stated that even God has a God and why, because of the reality of ‘eternal progression’, our heavenly Mother and Father will move on from their positions to even more exalted states of existence in the ‘order of things’.

    Going a little further, this chain of beings is all a projection of and all beings are ‘Intelligence’ viewing itself and existing ‘through’ all of the various, plural projections (beings).

    It’s not that the chain of beings are ‘unreal’ – but that they are only real precisely because they are all the ‘Intelligence’ which is uncreated, forever eternal, and always existing. There’s no separation between ‘it’ (Intelligence) and its projections (us). We ARE it.

    Logically, then, we might want to ask ourselves a few things to awaken to this ‘identity’. We are at once, currently, mortal beings in a body of flesh born from mortal parents. But, is that ‘really’ who and what we are? Yes and No.

    The ‘matter’ we are composed of is subject to change and transformation. Why? Because the ‘matter’ we see ourselves through is a reflection of our continually changing and transforming ‘point of view’ and projection AS Intelligence. We are, at once, ‘mortal bodies’ – but we also are not. We are, at once, children of our mortal parents – but at the same time we are not. We are, at once ‘spirit bodies’ – but at the same time, we are not. We are, at once, children of our heavenly Mother and Father – but at the same time we are not. See the reality of yourself as Intelligence here? And please note that this is not a denigration of or a rejection of our parents as ‘nothing’! They are Intelligence as well. We all are.

    We know that prior to taking on this fallen, mortal body of probation and testing, in order to learn the lessons here in this state, we had finer bodies of ‘spirit’ that were born via our heavenly parents. Yet again to repeat the point, is that what we ‘really’ are or were? Yes. and again – no. In the ‘beginning’, Man was also with God (our heavenly parents) – meaning that we were and are always existing as Intelligence – even prior to being born with our spirit bodies in the higher realms.

    In terms of the manner in which, and through whom, we as Intelligence project and see ourselves through the chain of beings (being born through different realms in the order of things), we are at once associated with and identified with the chain of beings (mortal parents, heavenly parents, mortal bodies, spirit bodies, and so on) – but the ‘I’ that exists through that chain eternally is Intelligence that isn’t really bound by anything at all. It’s why the universe is eternal and unbounded, always expanding into new vistas and transformation – and why ‘matter’ is eternal in some given state as well. Because ‘we’ are.

    Think of it this way: It’s not like immortality is conferred by anyone else to you in the chain of beings – though everyone AS projected Intelligence participates in the unfolding of eternity according to an order that is eternally unfolding as well.

    Being ‘exalted’, in the strictest sense, has nothing to do with being ‘granted’ immortality or having another projected Intelligence ‘give’ it to you – as if you aren’t eternal and immortal already. That’s the ‘key’ of awakening to your identity AS intelligence.

    Positively, being exalted does have to to do with taking a conscious, eternal direction of unfoldment and living a conscious, eternal and positive purpose in the order of things and through the chain of beings.

    We can realize and live our immortality as Intelligence along the path of upward and expansive eternal development and purpose that our parents have shown us – both mortal and heavenly – or we can choose another path entirely – which, as we can see, has its direction and purpose as well. Either way, we are eternal and immortal. I’ll ‘see’ you there. :))

  14. 14 measure76 July 1, 2008 at 6:20 pm


  15. 15 Octavio Heard May 27, 2010 at 4:08 am

    If I had a nickel for each time I came here… Amazing writing!

  1. 1 Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 2 « Small and Simple Trackback on July 17, 2008 at 8:42 am
  2. 2 Reviewing McMurrin’s Theological Foundations: Part 3 « Small and Simple Trackback on July 20, 2008 at 5:04 pm

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