The Fallacy of Fundamentalist Assumptions
by Blake Ostler
Blake Ostler graduated from Brigham Young University in 1981, receiving a BA in Philosophy, summa cum laude, and a BS in Psychobiology, magna cum laude. He earned his JD at the University of Utah, cum laude, in 1985. From 1982 to 1985 he was a William Leary Scholar. He is fluent in Italian and French and conversant in Swedish, Spanish and German, and conducts scholarly research in Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Mr. Ostler has published numerous articles in professional philosophical journals including International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Religious Studies, BYU Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and he is the author of the three volume series Exploring Mormon Thought. The first volume of this series, The Attributes of God, was published in 2001 and the second volume, The Problems of Christian Theism, is due to be published this year 2005.
Mr. Ostler is a partner in the Salt Lake City law firm of Mackey Price Thompson & Ostler. He is the past Chair for the Education Law Section of the Utah State Bar (1996), and past Chair for the Law for Clergy Section of the Utah State Bar (1990).
The following is a transcript of Mr. Ostler’s presentation at the 2005 FAIR Conference.
I’d like to begin my presentation (there should have been an outline that was handed out that you have in front of you). But I want to begin a bit off outline. I was amused- I was reading this morning that we have (and Chris Buttars is a good friend of mine) and he’s wondering whether he should introduce intelligent design into Utah schools. And I was thinking intelligent design? Chris is a Mormon and he probably doesn’t even realize what he would be teaching isn’t Mormon cosmology.
And I was reading another article—as a matter of fact just last night—about how the Big Bang proved this story of Genesis and I was thinking, apparently the people who read- who know all about the Big Bang have never read Genesis. (Laughter)
So what I’ve begun with, and what you have up to my right, to your left, is a picture if you will of the way that at least as I read the Old Testament is a picture of the Old Testament cosmology or worldview because cosmology would be assuming too much.
You’ve heard it said that God created the heavens and the earth. And so he did, but the heavens and the earth is not all that there is. It is all that there is that’s created and there’s a difference.
In Psalm 104 it talks about God beginning the Creation and the first thing he creates is his throne and he creates it on the waters in the heavenly palace and there’s already a heaven of heavens, if you will, in which he exists and which he’s creating. And the reason that all of this is important is that I’m going to be talking about a particular worldview today.
I want to specify that it’s the way that the biblical scriptures have been read since probably the second century if not before by certain Jewish philosophers. But what has happened and what I want to emphasize in my presentation today is that there is a reason why our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters look at us and say, ‘Boy the worldview that you have and the way you see things is very different from the way we look at it.’
And what I want to look at today is what that worldview is, how it cleaves, why we see it differently, and why I don’t believe the worldview that they would like us to read the scriptures through won’t hold together–it doesn’t make sense; you can’t. And it can’t because of the most foundational assumptions at the beginning of the Creation of the world if you will.
So when I tell you that there was already a heaven of heavens in which God’s throne resided when he began to create the heavens and the earth I would simply- and I’m just going to make- I’m going to read a couple of statements:
I love this statement, this is by Jon Levenson1, who is a scholar at Harvard [Divinity School]:
Nowhere in the seven-day creation scheme of Genesis 1 does God create the waters; they are most likely primordial. The traditional Jewish and Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo [that means creation out of nothing] can be found in this chapter only if one translates its first verse as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and understands it to refer to some comprehensive creative act on the first day. But that translation, subject to doubt since the Middle Ages, has fallen into disfavor among scholars, and the rest of the chapter indicates that the heaven was created on the second day to restrain the celestial waters (vv. 9-10).
Now here’s what I want to point out–the waters are already there. God is setting about and when he creates the heaven, he creates the heaven not by creating something but by separating it. The very basic verb bara’, in Hebrew, its most basic meaning means ‘to cut’, ‘to cleave’; and God creates by cleaving in two.
We’re going to be talking about the way the world cleaves logically in a moment but God creates by cleaving what’s already there; and when he creates, he creates a barrier between the ocean. Now I suspect that this is because that when the Hebrews- remember they didn’t have telescopes and the satellites that they could launch from Cape Canaveral were few and far between! So when they looked at the heavens they asked themselves, ‘What’s up there and how did it get there?’ And when they looked up it looked really blue and they had noticed that water also looked blue and they concluded, ‘There’s a lot of water up there.’ At least I believe that’s probably how they arrived at that.
Anyway, so he [Levenson] says that the heavens are created on the second day
and the earth on the third day (vv. 9-10). It is true – and quite significant – that the God of Israel has no myth of origin.
Now this is very significant. There is no story of the origin of the God of Israel or of the gods.
“Not a trace of theogony-” theogony is the story of how God comes to be and in all other Near-Eastern societies, by the way, there are theogonies. There are stories of how the gods come to be, how they’re born and created–that’s not so with the biblical religion.
Not a trace of theogony can be found in the Hebrew Bible. God has no nativity. But there do seem to be other divine beings in Genesis 1, to whom God proposes the creation of humanity, male and female together: “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness” (v. 26).
Well who is he talking to?
When were these other divine beings created? They too seem to have been primordial. Whether their existence should be interpreted as a qualification upon god’s mastery in Genesis is impossible to determine. Because they do not dissent from his proposal to create humanity in his and their image …
I’m not going to read the rest of it, but the bottom line–well I will read this:
From the biblical accounts of the divine assembly in session, it would appear that these ‘sons of God/gods’ played an active role and made fresh proposals to God, who nonetheless retained the final say. In short, like the other gods … are thought to be real and important, but also subordinate and not very individualized.
The reason I begin with that, is that I’m about to talk about a worldview that’s very different from this way of looking at the world–this way of looking at the world is admittedly, well, different!
When we talk about one God in modern Christianity we begin with a basic fundamental assumption in all of Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought: it is that there is God and then there is everything else.
I call this the assumption of metaphysical monotheism and this is the very fundamental point from which they begin; and they begin here for a very good reason and it is this assumption: There exists a simple, immaterial substance that is necessarily the sole instance of the kind “divine” and utterly unique in the sense that there are no other members in the class of being occupied by this simple substance; alone has ontologically necessary actuality; (that means he’s- God is the only one that can’t fail to exist) and everything else that is actual in any way depends upon this simple substance for its actuality.
What that means in shorthand term is, God created and everything else is created. It’s that simple.
Beginning with this basic assumption, we derive also the conclusion that there is a single being not in any class with any others. So if we talk about God, God is what Aristotle would call sui generis–God is in a class all by itself. I use the term ‘itself’ on purpose because there are other ‘hims’ about the world and God can’t be in a class with other ‘hims’ so the only word that will work is ‘it’.
This single being is the uncreated source of everything else and the universe cleaves into the Creator-creature dichotomy with God on one side of the dichotomy and everything else on the other.
Now this also entails, and I’m telling you, I took this description essentially from St. Augustine. Augustine literally created the Christian worldview as we know it, in my view. He more than any other individual in the existence of Christian history is responsible for the way that God would be viewed for the relationship between God and man and this ‘cleaver’ if you will that cleaves the world down these lines.
It entails, in his view, and in the view of almost every medieval theologian to write divine simplicity; and I’m going to explain why they came up with that.
God must be a single, undivided substance because if God were complex, that is if he were composed in any sense he had parts (we’re talking about God who has no parts) and this complexity also would have to be explained but since God is really what explains everything, if we had to explain something about God we would have to find an explanation for that which is the explanation for everything else and we would find out that he doesn’t explain himself. So God must be simple.
That means immediately that God can’t have a body; there can’t be three in God; God cannot have two natures; there is no plurality of any kind in God–God is simple. And I don’t mean he’s simple in the sense that he can’t figure everything out, I mean he’s simple in the sense that he’s not composed of parts.
In the tradition God then reduces to a mind that is conscious of itself and knows all there is to know and has efficacious power at all places and that pretty well exhausts everything that we can positively say.
Now if you doubt that this is the way things must cleave, I invite you to look at any Christian theology.
Now I’m going to talk about a way of doing theology and I’m going to suggest that this way of doing theology which is the basis of all traditional Christian, traditional Jewish and traditional Islamic theology is a way of going about theology that no Latter-day Saint would ever approach it. It also explains however, why on virtually every single major doctrine on which we have disagreement, they read the scripture in one way and we read it in another, and why when they say, ‘You just have a very different God than we do,’ this is what they’re referring to–they’re referring to a God in whom there is no plurality.
And when we interpret everything through this non-plural, non-relational, all alone God, it looks very different than any way that we could approach scripture.
Equally important–I would suggest that we have a very fruitful way of approaching scripture but it’s not going to be this way. I will call this way of approaching scripture onto-theology that comes from the Greek word ontos. Ontos means being. It is a theology that begins from different kinds of being and there are only two: uncreated being and created being.
And onto-theology is the way that theology has been done essentially for the last 1,600 years in the Christian-Jewish-Islamic world.
Now this obviously raises problems with the foundational doctrine of the Trinity. Why does it do so? Well, there can’t really be any distinctions among persons if metaphysical monotheism is true.
Think about it. There’s a single being–not three. That’s why it was very natural in Christian history for the issue first to arise with relationship to Christ when they began to call Christ God. The question was very natural, ‘Which side of this ontological dichotomy does Christ fit on?’ And this was the question that was addressed at Nicea, the very first council to address the issue of the Trinity and the question was precisely, ‘Is Christ created or is he uncreated?’
If Christ is uncreated then he must be identical with the Father because there’s only one thing that is uncreated. If he’s created however, he can’t be God because God isn’t created and therefore if he’s created he’s not truly God. That was the issue and how they answered it was the Trinity. There’s a single substance and it has three parts and those three parts are the Trinity.
Now I’m just going to remind you that when we begin to break it down this way, the persons can’t really be thought of as distinct things. In fact, Thomas Aquinas, in my opinion and I don’t know how many people have taken the time (I did) to read the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles in Latin. (Laughter) I’m telling it was very well worth it. I have huge respect for this man and his mind because I think that he got it right. And in it getting right, I think he exposed the greatest problems that exist in Christian theology.
The persons of the Trinity are reduced to mere relational substances on his view, or relational subsistences, that is, the persons aren’t things, they’re not separate, they’re not distinct–they’re mere relations. And if you ask, ‘Well doesn’t a relation require something and something else that are in relation together?’ I would say yes, but let’s take away the something and the something else and see what’s in between and that’s what Thomas Aquinas was talking about–those are the persons.
Because you can’t have distinctness in God and that’s why he came to that conclusion. By the way so did Augustine toward the end of his life came to the same conclusion that we can’t really have anything distinct.
However this arrives at the conclusion of modalism. Modalism is the view that in God there is one thing, one being, that manifests itself in three different ways. It’s not that there are three beings, there are not three persons in the way that we use the word person. There are, rather, three different ways of manifesting. So, God manifests himself as Father, he manifests himself as Son and he manifests himself as Holy Ghost but these are not three, these are only one; and that I believe is how they would say it.
But there’s an obvious logical problem that arises when we begin to talk that way and I give it here; I give what I call the logical problem of the Trinity: Any four of the premises that I’ve given to you- or any three of these premises entail the denial of the fourth. So for instance if I tell you that there’s only one true God who is exactly one divine individual, the Father is God and the Son is God and that’s all we take then we conclude modalism–that is, we conclude that there is only one divine individual and that the Father is Yahweh, the Son is Yahweh and they are identical to each other and the Son is just another name for the Father.
That happens to be a heresy in Christian history by the way, not even your traditional friends would want to accept that. They recognize that that’s not consistent with scripture.
But I suggest that by taking those three premises that’s where we arrive but if on the other hand, you take the bottom three–the Father is God, the Son is God and the Son is not identical to the Father–then we must deny metaphysical monotheism. There is no other way around it. And you can play around with these four premises; in fact they’re very instructive. Take any three of them and you will arrive at some “heresy” in the tradition of Christian thought. Two, three and four (inaudible) entailed the heresy of what our traditional friends call polytheism which I’ll talk about right now.
Let’s talk about what monotheism is because they insist that Mormons are not monotheists and because they are monotheists, in some sense, even though they claim to be Trinitarians also, they claim that we can’t have a true religion. It is their argument, by the way, consistently- constantly made throughout the entire history of anti-Mormon thought.
So what is it that’s being asserted? Well first of all I want to point out that the word monotheism doesn’t appear once in any of the scriptures–it’s not there. It is a construct that is arrived at from reading the scriptures.
So what does monotheism mean? Well monotheism means there is only one God. But that’s terribly ambiguous; in what sense is there only one God if you have a Father who is God, a Son who is God, and a Holy Ghost who is God? I think that the- if we argue that people who say that those three are only one simply don’t know how to count very well. I think that’s probably a good argument by the way.
Well, in the Old Testament there are various forms of monotheism. Some scholars call it henotheism: There are many gods who are independently worshipped but only one is preeminent.
There is monolatry: There is only one God that is properly worshiped as a matter of political duty or contractual agreement; but there are gods of other nations.
We’ve also already discussed trinitarianism of which there are two types and they both pretend to be monotheistic. The first is Latin trinitarianism, which I’ve already discussed with you. It is that there is a single being that is manifested in three relations.
There is also something that has arisen very recently that- well recently- the Greek Fathers taught it as well and by Greek Fathers I mean beginning in about- with Origen in 300 AD and moving forward to about 450-500 AD. The Greek Fathers taught a form of social trinitarianism. Social trinitarianism is the view that there is a community of indwelling but distinct divine persons who are united in a perichoresis. Perichoresis means to dance in unity. But they do more than dance in unity, they also interpenetrate; they live their lives in each other in such a way that the spirit of one penetrates into the spirit of another and their lives can’t really be divided.
I would suggest to you that social trinitarianism is probably very, very close to what a considered Mormon view would be. Well, let’s talk about this for a minute.
I also want to suggest that there is monarchical monotheism, and what does this mean? Well you all know what a monarch is. A monarch is a king. And there can be a king and there can be subjects, and we can cleave the world that way but in the end all we have is a bunch of human beings. Monarchical monotheism is the view that we have one God who is king or preeminent, but there are gods, called sons and daughters of God.
Now I’ll simply tell you that, there has been somewhat of a revolution in biblical studies with regard to the Hebrew worldview. A large part of the reason for this revolution is the discovery of the Ras Shamra text, they’re Ugaritic text. They give us an optic into the ancient proto-Hebraic world if you will. They tell us about a council in heaven overseen by the father god El. He oversees a council of gods who are called sons of gods–they are called Elim, Elohim. They are referred to and sit in council with this high god but they are not a different kind than the father is, in fact the very fact that he would be seen as a father would indicate that there is a genetic relationship of some sort, at least, the best way that we can think about it.
So when we’re thinking about the Hebrew worldview, it’s important to keep in mind that they had a very different way, at least initially, of looking at this. The other thing that has led to this revolution is, for instance, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The discovery of a text in Deuteronomy specifically, that talks about Yahweh being set over a nation like the other sons of god and they all oversee gods.
Now it’s been known for a long time that the Hebrew Bible talked about various gods in the council of gods.
By the way this is the second volume, it’s sitting back there on the table- But I’m going to quote something that I quoted. This is from Hans-Joachim Kraus, a German scholar:
Israel borrowed from the Canaanite-Syrian world the well-attested concept of a pantheon of gods and godlike beings who surround the supreme God, the ruler and monarch…. Yahweh alone is the highest God (Elyon) and king…. In Psalm 82 we have a clear example of the idea of a council of gods, …. “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” The “highest god” is the judge. The gods (elohim) are his attendants. They are witnesses in the forum which Yahweh rules alone, and in which he possesses judicial authority. We might term the cheduth-el “Yahweh’s heavenly court.” All of the gods and powers of the people are in his service.2
This is an expression of what I call monarchical monotheism. There is one high god but there are other gods. They give obeisance to this one god.
I would suggest to you that in the Mormon scriptures we have a form of monarchical monotheism. That is there is a God of all others gods, according to D&C 121. There is a God who is more intelligent than all the rest of the intelligences in the Book of Abraham. This one highest God of whom we speak in the council of the gods, is the most high in Hebrew El Elyon. And what that means is, that when we look at the scriptures we’re going to see it very differently because we don’t see this ontological distinction between the gods and God. We see instead a family relationship.
Now there’s an obvious problem with the metaphysical monotheism which is a version of the problem of the Trinity but I have set it up in such a way to show that the real problem of the Trinity is the assumption of metaphysical monotheism.
If there is exactly one most high God and the Father is identical to the most high God and the Father, Son and the Spirit are each equally and fully divine and the Son is not identical to the Father and neither is identical to the Spirit I can assert all four of those–they can all be consistent. In fact, I’d want to say that LDS adopt all four of those propositions–I accept them all.
The problem is if we add a fifth proposition to this context. If there is any being that fully possesses the divine nature, then this being is necessarily the single instance of the kind divine. That is, if monarchical monotheism is true, it follows that the kinds of things that we want to say about the Trinity, that we want to say about the gods in the council of gods can’t be true. They can’t be the same kind–we can’t be referring to anything that is equal in any sense ontologically, genetically or in any other way.
Now obviously there’s a scriptural problem because the scriptures very clearly distinguish between the Father and the Son. It’s clear that the Father sends the Son; and the Son is sent but the Son doesn’t send the Father; and the Father isn’t sent; and the Son prays to the Father, but the Father never prays to the Son; and I suggest that we don’t ever see the Father praying to the Father.
Now this gives rise to another problem and that’s the problem of Christology.
If we look at the problem- now this problem was the next one in the next council that arose essentially. Christology rose right after Nicea. Nicea dealt with the problem of the Trinity. Which side is Jesus Christ on? Is he created or uncreated? Once they solved that problem they realized they’d created another problem; that’s the problem of Christology.
Well hold it. If Christ is on the other side of the line of created beings, how could he ever really be a human being? I mean, what are we to say? That it was really God in a human body walking around the Palestinian countryside? And so Chalcedon addressed the issue–and Chalcedon was in 421 AD in case you’re orienting yourself in terms of history. And so, we’re addressing now, how can it possibly be that Christ is both human and divine at the same time? How could he be God and also have been human?
Now I’ve given an argument here- now if we take that God is essentially uncreated–and if metaphysical monotheism is true–God is essentially uncreated. And if humans must be essentially created–and if metaphysical monotheism is true–we are essentially created. Then we have two different natures and they are logically distinct and we can never get them together logically. They are contradictory. So to say that this being is both human and divine at the same time is simply contradiction.
We could say that he’s divine in a different respect than he’s human but then we wouldn’t be talking about the same individual; we would be talking about different individuals.
So I’ve asked- I’ve given an argument suggesting that if- and I’ve given an assumption here called “CT”. This is called the basic doctrine of Christianity, the most basic doctrine, it is possible for a single person to be at once both fully human and fully divine. If that’s not true I suggest that the history of Christianity has been very, very mistaken about who and what Jesus was. You see because we assert that only- and I’m going to suggest that the Mormon view that Christ as a human was less than fully divine is missing something, for the very simple reason that only an infinite God could pull off an infinite Atonement. Only a God could atone. And for that reason, we have a very big problem if we buy into metaphysical monotheism and I’ve given the argument under CT showing that human nature is such that it can’t possibly be consistent with an uncreated divine nature.
I’ve also given the argument; think about what it is to be God for a moment: God knows everything, he is all-powerful, he’s everywhere. Well what does it mean then to say that this person walking around the Palestinian countryside is God? Because I take it that there were things that Jesus didn’t know–at least he didn’t know some things the Father knew like when he would return at the very least. I would suggest that he was more limited in knowledge as a human being. I would suggest that he couldn’t do everything. I would suggest that he wasn’t all-powerful.
Now I know that there are ways to read the scriptures that suggest that Christ could, you know, pull off the miracles that he did because he was simply God doing anything that God wanted to do. But I suggest that if you view Jesus that way you’re not going to be able to make sense out of his humanity very well.
First of all, he wouldn’t really suffer as a human being because one of the greatest problems of suffering as a human is we don’t know when it will stop and we can’t stop it. It’s hopeless because we can’t control it. And he wouldn’t suffer in that dimension.
Moreover, it would be very difficult for Christ, as a child. Imagine finding out that anything you wanted to do as a child you could do and no matter how big the puddle was you could leap over it, you could leap an ocean! I would imagine very early in his life he would’ve found out there was a lot he could do that others couldn’t. But that’s not the Jesus that the scriptures show.
So I suggest that we have somewhat of a problem here, but the problem is made logically greater when we assert that God is the only uncreated being; and the reason for that is that we can’t really share a nature with Christ beginning with this assumption so, Christology is not possible.
Now when our friends in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions–and let’s focus on a Christian tradition for a moment say, ‘You have a different Jesus than I do.’ I always say, ‘What do you mean? Do you mean that, you believe that I believe in a different person that was walking around the Palestinian countryside than you do?’
‘Oh no I don’t mean that. I mean that the things you believe about Jesus are not true and the things I do, are.’
And I say, ‘Well like what?’
And they’ll say, ‘Well you believe that Jesus is distinct from the Father in Heaven.’
And I often answer and say, ‘Yes and so do you. Because you don’t believe he’s identical to the Father and you believe that he has things about him that are different than the Father. So you believe that he’s distinct from the Father and we have at least two different beings.’
And I’ve never, ever had one of my Christian friends say, ‘Oh no. No, no I really believe they’re just one.’ They all believe that they are two.
And the next argument is always, ‘Well you believe in more than one God.’
And I’ll say, ‘Well so do you: Father–one. Son–two. One, two.’
To which they want to say, ‘Well, you believe that humans can be God.’
And I say, ‘So do you. The Son was human and I know that what you mean by God is different than everything that you mean by human but I suggest to you that we have a very different way of looking at things only because you have an assumption that if we think it through you’re not going to buy. And I suggest that the ultimate assumption is metaphysical monotheism. That assumption is not accurate. It’s contrary to the scriptures and it’s not something that I think you can buy into if you believe in the Trinity or if you believe that Jesus was God. Because if Jesus was God then it’s possible for a human being to both divine–fully divine–and human–fully human. And so you can’t possibly argue that I have a different Jesus because I believe that humans can be divine.’
Which brings me to the next problem, the problem of deification.
Now I know that you’ve all heard this from your Christian friends, ‘You believe that you can be a god!’ And I always say, ‘Well in what sense do you mean that?’
I want to back up for a moment because I believe we murder our own doctrine. In fact, we have an incredible talent as LDS for trivializing our own doctrine. I don’t know where we came by this talent but I suggest it comes naturally. (Laughter)
I want to use three analogies to suggest the doctrine of theosis or the doctrine of deification.
If you talk to your Christian friends and say, ‘We actually believe in the same doctrine. You believe that we will share everything that God has, that we are his heirs, that we are his begotten children and that we will be fully glorified with everything that he is and has and it’s called the doctrine of glorification.’ That’s what Protestants call it at least.
And they’ll say, ‘Yeah so?’
And I’ll say, ‘Well, you have a misimpression about what being deified means in Mormon thought.’ Now I’m going to parody Mormon thought for a moment because I think that this is what they are thinking of when they reject it and they ought to reject it.
What they’re thinking of is, that someday when I say I’m going to be a God, I’m going to take about 40 of my wives, I’m going to fly off to a corner of the universe that God hasn’t quite gotten to yet and I’m going organize it. And I’m going to be all alone, self-sufficient like the saints were when they first got to the Rocky Mountain Basin. That’s not what we mean.
I’m going to use three analogies to suggest what we do mean. The first is one that I can agree on fully with my Christian friends and which they have used in their own literature. It’s an iron in a fire. Say you have a tire iron and you stick it in a fire. Well the iron will become hot. Now it’s not the nature of the iron to be hot, it’s only hot when it participates in the nature of the fire that has a nature to be hot. So I have a distinct nature–an iron–and it has a property of the fire communicated to it: heat. In the same way, they would say that our Father has a nature. It’s an immortal nature and he communicates his life to us and that’s how we have an immortal life with our Father. So God has communicated to us a property that only divinity has and that is immortal life.
And so that’s what they mean by deification–God communicates something of his own divine nature to us and in that sense we share a divine nature. I suggest that we mean at least that when we talk about deification.
I’m now going to use another analogy but I believe they would have to reject it. When we talk about deification, we often think of it in terms of the Son becoming like his Father. I have a grandchild, he doesn’t speak very well. He can’t think very clearly, he has a lot of fun playing most of the time and he’s not very much like me at all but he has the capacity to grow into everything that his grandfather is but nobody could ever guess just looking at him that he has these capacities. Now this is a fairly decent analogy for what we mean by deification but it certainly doesn’t go far enough and why not? Well deification is not simply a matter of just hanging around long enough to grow into what our Father is.
We don’t simply become God because we’re good and we live a long time. So I want to correct a misimpression that I think is very common.
I want to use another analogy, it’s very clear reading our own scriptures and the Lectures on Faith that deification only arises when we enter into a certain type of relationship. It’s a relationship of indwelling love. That is, it’s a relationship of the very type that the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost have with one another; and they have invited us into this relationship.
John 17 where Christ talks about the disciples becoming one in each other as the Father and the Son are one in each other became the basis for the belief in deification in the earliest Latter-day Saint scriptures and in the Lectures on Faith–I invite you to read what they have to say about John 17.
But it’s very clear that deification is not something that we do all alone. It’s not something that we simply become because we live long enough. Deification is what happens to us when we enter into a loving relationship. It is something that is a relationship in and of itself and we are only divine to the extent that we share our lives fully in one another.
So I’d like to suggest another analogy. If I have one atom of deuterium or form of hydrogen all in itself, I have a single thing. But all by itself it can’t become what will happen if I take another atom of deuterium and I fuse them together–if I heat them up, they fuse. If you want to know what happens, go look at what happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes because that’s what’s happening. That kind of power rises from fusion. Alone they don’t have this power. Together there is an incredible light and power that is generated and that’s what it is to be divine in Mormon thought.
We are divine because we are made one. Now I’m going to let you in on a secret: Everything that Joseph Smith did in his entire lifetime was aimed at teaching us how to have this type of relationship. Zion, the order of Zion, the order of Enoch that he developed was aimed at teaching us how to have the unity that is required for this type of life. It is teaching us how to be one in all things because Joseph Smith wanted to teach us how to have the very same kind of relationship here and now that the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost have. That is why the very centre of the gospel is the very simple admonition: “Love one Another” (John 15:12) and that is why all the law and the prophets hinge on this one commandment.
Because it all comes down to this, what our Father has to give us, what he has to teach us all arises from entering into loving relationships but not merely being in love in the way that we wish each other well. I wish all of you well, but I don’t have an intimate and abiding fellowship with all of you.
To enter into an intimate and abiding fellowship requires work and a lot of it! And it requires the kind of trust and intimacy. I’m going to suggest that one of the reasons that the family relationship is a focus is that this is probably the best school in the world for learning these types of relationships and I’m going to tell you about a paradox of a sort.
In Mormonism, we come to earth already natural-born children of the Mother and Father, already natural-born children of God. And we come here to be adopted as children of God. Now I don’t know if it seems strange to you but have you ever asked yourself, ‘Why would natural parents adopt their children?’ Because that’s what we’re asserting is happening. You see we have these two different types of divine parentage; and the reason is that being natural-born children is one kind of relationship but choosing into a relationship of intimate fellowship, of deep abiding and sharing of life is a very different kind of relationship. It is a relationship that is chosen and I would tell you that in LDS theology the bottom line for almost everything is choice.
When it comes right down to it, we are here to make a choice and the choice is whether we will enter back into God’s presence and enter into this kind of relationship or we choose to walk away from it. That is the choice that’s been given to us.
In fact, I’d suggest you go back and read Alma 41 and 42 and what the Atonement is about because the Atonement is all about giving us this very choice to be made.
So what is it when we talk about having a different view of things and they say, ‘We don’t believe in deification the way you do’?
I respond, ‘That’s partly correct. You don’t believe that when you become deified that you will share fully in God’s knowledge and power; and that you will have all that he is and has to give you. You believe that the only attribute that can be communicated to you is the attribute of immortal life and we believe that that’s given to everybody. That everybody naturally is resurrected and will live forever. It’s given to everybody as a sheer matter of grace. But to call people gods would seem strange to us; rather deification means, for us, having something that goes beyond grace.’
Now I’m going to cleave the world again if you will, but I want to first walk through this. I’m going to suggest to you that in the tradition there is no possible deification because of the assumption of metaphysical monotheism.
Look at it this way, if God has the kind of essence that they say he does, that is: He is simple and there’s only one of that kind, and if this simple essence has no component parts in the sense that all of God’s attributes are identical, and if God is essentially loving–and there’s this term used in Orthodox theology, its energies–orthodox theologians assert that we share the energies of God and in sharing the energies of God we are deified. It’s another way of saying that the divine life enters into us and keeps us alive forever okay? But it happens that this energy is a part of the essence of God and the essence of God happens to be part of what essentially it is to be uncreated. And because we are created we can’t share in this divine attribute either because God can’t share his essence with us. What God is essentially can’t be shared with what humans are essentially–now I’d like you to back up.
If that’s true and if people want to talk with us that way about what it is to be divine I would ask this question, ‘How can you possibly assert that your religion is based upon the most basic assertion that there is at the beginning a person who is both human and divine? Because you’ve arrived at the conclusion that humanity and divinity can’t possibly be together in the same person–that was the argument you were using against me to suggest that my view of deification was not acceptable to you. And yet that’s the very essence of Christianity and the very starting point for your religion! So you can’t possibly deny it.’
We can’t deny, you see, that there is a shared nature such that what human nature is we can possibly be divine. I would put it another way. For Jesus Christ to be fully human and fully divine entails that it cannot not be possible for human beings to be divine in nature otherwise it would be impossible for Christ. It has to be that way.
And so if that is the case, and it follows logically, it must be possible for human nature to fully possess the divine nature. Not only is it possible we have an actual instance of it: Jesus Christ who walked around the Palestinian countryside 2,000 years ago.
Now, we’ve talked about the doctrine of the Trinity and why the doctrine of the Trinity is in tension with this metaphysical monotheism. We’ve talked about Christology and why the belief that Jesus is both God and man is in tension with metaphysical monotheism. We’ve talked about deification and why this doctrine is in tension with metaphysical monotheism.
I now want to talk about the problem of free agency. This could also be called the problem of grace and works and salvation. Now they usually–”they” I mean our critics–will say, ‘You don’t believe in salvation in a right way. You’re not truly Christian because salvation comes by grace.’
And obviously the next question, because of the way we’ve been trained by Dallin Oaks is to ask the next question, ‘What do you mean by salvation?’ Right? So we’re going to ask, ‘Well what do you mean by salvation?’
‘Well, what I mean is I’m not going to be sent to hell.’
To which we can all gladly agree, ‘You’re right. None of us are going to be sent to hell. Let’s move on.’ Because we don’t believe in hell the same way they do. But if we look at it very carefully, there’s something very profound and important here. If we were created ex nihilo then it follows that everything about us and each moment is up to God. How so? Well first of all, it follows from the notion of monarchical monotheism that there’s only one being that has existence as its nature–that is God can’t fail to exist–but we can and it’s our nature such that if God doesn’t sustain us in existence in each moment we wink out of existence the next moment.
What follows from that is that everything we are in every moment is created directly by God. How so? Well, imagine for a moment that I cease to exist for the next five minutes and I just pop back into existence now and five minutes have passed! How does God create me? I made a decision three minutes ago and God, does he create me with that decision in place or does he create me as I was five minutes ago when I winked out of existence. You see, the state that I’m in now and the state that my choice is in now is totally up to God. Everything about me, including my free choices are directly created by God if creatio ex nihilo is true.
Now every thinker, every person in the whole history of thought who has thought about what free will is will agree that it’s not consistent with external coercion. It’s not consistent with being simply created as it is by something else. And yet that’s directly what is asserted by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, therefore, if anything is done in the world it must be directly done by God.
Now this is what philosophers would call occasionalism: in every single moment, everything that exists in the state that it exists and is created directly by God. And so for instance if I plant a tree 20 years ago and now it grows into a great oak it hasn’t grown into a great oak because I planted it as a tree, it’s a great oak because God created it as a great oak in this moment–he could’ve created it as something totally different or not created it at all. There’s no causal relationship between one moment and the next and we have no causal power or efficacy.
This follows, by the way, from creation ex nihilo. We have only one agent in the entire universe and its God. So if there’s going to be salvation, there’s only one agent who gets to determine who does it and that’s God.
Now I’ll also tell you that I believe that the reading of Paul that’s given by those who would suggest that God does our salvation essentially without us, read Ephesians and Romans much differently than I do (but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The bottom line with this, is let’s talk about how we view life. It began with a story; a story of a battle in a world before this one. And what was the battle over? You see we believe in something very fundamental–so fundamental that we hardly ever assert it but it really underlies the entire basis of our religion: love is a free choice. Love that is worthy of the name must be freely chosen and any person who truly loves another leaves that person free to choose whether to have that relationship or not. It can’t be forced, it can’t be coerced, and it can’t be created.
It has to be a full-hearted, full-blooded choice, given with the whole soul and that’s what God is after in Mormon thought. And so there was an entire third of our brothers and sisters who chose not to move forward, and so it’s as if we’re saying, ‘In the beginning, our Heavenly Father came to us and he said, ‘Look, I want to share with you everything that I have. I would like you to grow into everything that I am. But I can’t do that unless you have certain kinds of experiences and I leave you free to choose whether to have those experiences and choosing to enter a relationship with me because you see, you can’t become what I am unless you freely choose to love me. But there’s a risk here. If I leave you free as to whether you’re going to have this relationship or not, you might choose not to have it. And if you choose not to have a relationship with me–that means darkness. That means being lost. That’s a very serious thing. It’s a real risk, will you do it with me?”
And according to the Mormon story a third said, ‘No I don’t want to grow anymore. I’m not interesting in a further relationship with you at this point’ and God loved them so much he honored their choice to say no.
But there were those of us who said, ‘You bet, bring it on!’ And here we are.
And the whole purpose of mortal existence now is to learn to love. It’s to learn to choose into these relationships but, the rest of the story is that God’s not the only one in the story. You see that’s what I began with was the plurality and so the rest of the story is I’m not saved unless you are. My exaltation depends on your exaltation. So when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really mean a thing unless you’re all there with me. Because if a single one of us isn’t there we’re all diminished by your absence.
So the family becomes the essence of what we’re looking at–and we’re all in the family.
Now this is what the Mormon story is, it’s a matter of choice. We would never believe that God would cause us to be saved and enter into this relationship because to be saved means to enter into a saving relationship with God. And we don’t believe that God would ever cause that because he loves us and we believe that it’s the very essence of our religion that we’re left free to make this choice.
The bottom line and where I’m going with this is that the premise of metaphysical monotheism leads to a world where there are no true relationships. Where there are truly no others who get to make choices. To a world and a universe where there’s really only one being making all the decisions and therefore there can be no love of this type.
That to us is a world that we’re just- at least I am really not interested in. And so that’s why I wanted to talk about the implications of metaphysical monotheism because I believe it explains why our “Christian”-Jewish and Islamic brothers and sisters see things very differently because they have a very different beginning point and as Joseph Smith said in his famous King Follett discourse, ‘If you don’t begin right it will be a very difficult matter to go right.’
Questions and Answers
Q: Please comment on the little couplet, “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”3
OSTLER: How much time do you have? (Laughter) Let me put it this way, we believe this literally–that our Father once experienced mortality. And why would he do that? Because we believe that divinity has a potential for growth in a certain respect.
You see, we believe that there’s a way of having experiential knowledge. You’ve all read Alma 7 where it says, ‘That he learned to succor those through those things that he suffered.’ We believe that even a being that knows all things can still grow in knowledge in terms of experiential knowledge. And, it was very important, that even the Father have this kind of firsthand direct experiential knowledge and he has had.
“As God now is” I would read God–not in the sense of only the Father or only the Son alone–but all three together: As the Godhead is, we may enter into that same divine relationship of love and therefore be deified.
And I think that that is probably about as far as I want to comment at this point.
Q: I think you are arguing against absolutism and for a finite God. Do you think that is right?
OSTLER: First of all I never think of God as finite. Finite simply has the implication that God is limited and says nothing more. Yes I do believe that there are certain limitations for God but I don’t believe that limitations are a bad thing.
For instance, I believe that limitations in cruelty, ignorance and stupidity are good things. So I don’t think that limitations in and of themselves are necessarily bad and I do believe that God has certain limitations. For instance, I don’t believe that God could make cruelty love; I don’t believe that God could make people who freely choose to love him out of nothing.
And so if you want to say that a God who is limited in any sense is finite I’d say, ‘Well technically yes this God is finite.’ But I also believe that God is supreme–remember I told you he was El Elyon (the highest). I believe that God has maximal power and knowledge and love and I believe that calling a being, who knows every thought that I’ve ever had and every atom on the planet Jupiter, limited in knowledge is missing the point. I just don’t- and Mormons certainly believe that God knows at least that much so calling God finite I think is a misimpression.
Q: Then you use phrases like infinite God providing infinite Atonement.
OSTLER: That’s true but I don’t believe that infinite means the same thing here. Infinite Atonement in my view, I’d have to ask, ‘In what respects is God’s Atonement infinite?’
I believe it’s infinite in its intensity. That is, there is no limit- if we experience pain there is a certain point at which we will simply pass out–a merciful threshold at which we cease to be conscious–however, that’s not so for God. And what I take infinite Atonement to mean is that he has infinite capacity for including our experiences in their totality, including suffering, into his and he’s infinite in love. There’s no person that he could ever meet that he won’t love. End of story. But I don’t believe that’s he’s infinite or finite in all respects.
And do I believe that finitism is a fitting view for LDS theology? In one respect yes, but in most respects no and I think that we demean God if we focus merely on limitation and the word finite the way the word finite does. I think we’re missing the point.
Technically yes God is finite but then everybody who isn’t a pantheist believes that God is limited in some respects because for pantheism God is the whole of reality. The minute you say that God isn’t the whole of reality you’ve got to delimit God in some respect and the minute you do that, He’s no longer logically infinite he’s now delimited in some sense.
So everybody believes that God is finite in some sense who believes that God is personal.
Q: Please compare the various aspects of (inaudible) with the traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity.
OSTLER: I’m not sure I’m qualified to do that–as much I’d love to.
Q: Does the existence of free agency require that each of us can create causes from nothing?
OSTLER: This is a very deep philosophical question and I would answer, no because we already exist in a material world and in a context and so there’s never such a thing as creation from absolute nothing because there never has been absolute nothing. It does however require that we can create something novel, something that’s never been before. Something like an artist creating a picture or a new creation that’s never been before by taking and organizing the data that are there into something new. So every free choice we make is taking our experience and spinning it in a way that is creative and novel for us and moving it into a choice.
I explain this at great length in my book as to what I mean by this, but free will is not simply making a choice out of nothing or a choice out of a vacuum–it’s making a choice in a context in a creative and novel way.
Q: Doesn’t the seventeenth chapter of John explain the fact that we are all one in purpose and not what the Trinity tries to convey as three in one?
OSTLER: Yes and no. Let me explain. I am concerned when Latter-day Saints describe the Trinity very often because we trivialize it. It would be the same way- I would trivialize my wife if I were to try to describe her in some ways and I would never try to do that.
When we talk about God being one, we mean much more that they have a common purpose. I was on a football team once and we all had a common purpose and it was to win the game but that didn’t make us God–are you with me? In fact we were far from it at that particular moment! (Laughter)
To be divine, is to be in a loving intimate relationship of indwelling love. And what I mean by indwelling is intense. It means we share our lives in a sense that we’re ultimately open and transparent to each other such that our lifeforce, everything that we are is invited into another’s being. It means that what we share with each other is in common. It means that there’s nothing about me that’s opaque. It means that we are so intimate with one another that our very lives are the same life.
And so, let’s not talk about separate beings, let’s talk about distinct beings that share an indwelling unity and I love the medieval term perichoresis–this notion of all dancing in unity with one another with the music swirling in between us sharing- and we all share, not a common purpose, but a common life and dance. The common type of joy that spontaneously springs from being in one another’s presence.
That’s how I would prefer to think of the Trinity, but you’re right, I don’t think that it means we’re one in substance and in fact I would reject substance ontology altogether. In fact I would suggest to you that from my perspective the entire project of onto-theology is a way of moving away from God rather than a way of moving toward God.
1 Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 5.
2 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms (London: SPCK, 1986), 48.
3 Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1884], 46.