Answering Nate

February 28, 2010 | 14 comments
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“God is: (1) all loving, (2) all powerful, (3) all knowing. Pick any two.”

A couple years ago, Nate Oman asked a couple questions. Here’s my answer. (It has come together as an artless cross between speculative theology and science fiction, so I hope you’ll look past my limited storytelling skills to catch the vision I’m trying to convey.)

The Story

“Once upon a time, numberless spirits inhabited the vast chaos of space and unorganized matter. They exercised their minuscule powers to organize little creations, but these quickly vanished in the swirling chaos, like sand castles against the tide. Having spent an eternity without achieving any lasting accomplishments, these spirits mostly just despaired and drifted.

One of these spirits, however, discovered the skill (perhaps through ingenuity, or perhaps just through persistence and luck) to build works that could endure the chaos. So, with much effort and with limited power, he began to build a habitation from the unorganized matter around him. This new dwelling attracted the attention of the other spirits, who desired to take shelter from the constant chaos.

This spirit received those who besought him. He explained that his power was not sufficient to build lasting habitations for all of them, but that he could teach them and train them so that together they might build a refuge that could shield them all from the chaos. He would be their father and they would be his children, if they would learn and live the lessons he would teach.

So this father spirit built a school where his children could go. Their combined experience would teach them how to make and maintain places of refuge in the face of the infinite chaos.”

How Is This Different?

This little story is rather similar to our conventional telling of premortal life and Heavenly Father’s designing a plan of salvation for us. But it differs in a two key points. First, the father in this story is infinitely powerful relative to his children, but he has only limited power relative to the primeval forces of existence. Second, in the context of this story it is not necessary for any specific child to obtain specific skills as long as the whole society of children together obtain sufficient skill and power to sustain their habitations in heaven.

What Does This Get Us Doctrinally?

The context of this story provides an explanation for (1) why people suffer, (2) why not everyone suffers equally, and (3) why God intervenes only on rare occasions.

  1. People suffer because life is hard and things fall apart. Life is hard because eternity is hard, and the lessons we learn here in managing and mitigating suffering will be directly applicable in eternity. (This has the side effect of making heaven a dynamic environment, actively engaged in the struggle against chaos, rather than it being a secluded idyll, entirely unaffected by the tides and forces of existence. Think of the “busy Joseph” vision attributed, I believe, to Wilford Woodruff.)
  2. Not everyone suffers equally because not everyone needs to suffer equally. Innovations in government, technology, social norms, art, etc. are the results of individual suffering, and they benefit society. Nations and cultures experience varying levels of suffering because they implement varying defenses against suffering. In this story, salvation is a community work. (I think it’s interesting the scriptures gives examples of prophetic blessings and curses made toward nations and churches generally, and not just to the individuals in them.)
  3. God intervenes only rarely because, in this narrative, it is not sustainable for him to intervene always. Perhaps he could mitigate all of our suffering in life, but then in death that leaves him back where he started, with trillions of incapable children whom he lacks the means to support.

The story also has the advantage that it is does not contradict any particulars of the traditional LDS plan of salvation narrative (though it may contradict particulars of LDS soteriology (which I only say because it lets me use the word “soteriology” in a public forum)).

What Does This Get Us Practically?

To me, the greatest benefit of this narrative is that it puts us on the hook for learning and living well here. It encourages us to reach out and help our fellow brothers and sisters here, because if we don’t do it here, we can’t expect god to do it for us later. “The religion that does nothing for a [person] in this life isn’t likely to do much for [them] in the next.”

What Are The Problems With This Narrative?

I’m sure you’ll let me know. Does this depiction of god and the purpose of mortality resonate well with you? Does it offend you? Why?

14 Responses to Answering Nate

  1. Harold Dwyer on February 28, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I don’t mean to be rude, but trying to strike at the problem of suffering which has vexed theologians and philosophers for thousands of years by saying, essentially, “life is tough” is very, very facile. The question of why a loving, all powerful deity would (just as one example) allow millions of people including children to die horribly in German death camps is not answered by this. Nor is it satisfying to say he cannot intervene because, hey, he can’t be everywhere at once.

    With respect to you and others, I think that those who believe they have an answer to this problem have not appreciated its insolubility.

  2. Drew on February 28, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    I just fail to see how the story provides reasonable explanations to those doctrinal points. But, then again, I’m fairly simpleminded.

  3. sl on March 1, 2010 at 12:35 am

    With respect to Dane, “life is tough” is a facile reduction of his argument.

    I have a hard time seeing why people have such a hard time with the suffering = soul making = god-community making approach to theodicy. I think Dane’s point is that this isn’t just the tough love approach of a harsh God; it’s the ONLY way to build a powerful god-like soul.

    As to why God intervenes in some situations and not others; can’t say for sure, but I also wonder why I, as a parent, sometimes intervene on my children’s behalf and sometimes don’t. Mostly I expose them to many risks every day. I strap them in a car and drive a speeds that could easily kill all of us (…usually just the speed limit.) I send them to school and scouts where they could be molested or hurt or contract some illness. I do this because its the only way they can grow; the alternative of keeping them home safe is not acceptable.

    Now would I allow my kids to murder and torture one another in the name of growth and learning? No, but that is no longer a fair analogy because it distorts the proportionality of how God views our suffering from an eternal perspective.

    A short example. The other day a neighborhood puppy tackled my three year old and began playfully mauling him (a big puppy). My three year old was scared out of his mind and started crying and screaming hysterically. I saw this out my window and was about to intervene when I saw my eight year old–in a surprising moment of courage and selflessness–tackle the puppy and pin him down while my three year old made a run for it. I couldn’t have been more proud and was glad I didn’t go out immediately to rescue them. I know, I know. A puppy is not the same as Auschwitz, but my three year old didn’t know that. To him, his world was crashing down…it was the end. He was dying a horrible death from a hideous beast. From my point of view, I knew his suffering was temporary and ultimately harmless. He was never in any real danger.

    It would be interesting–if we could even withstand the glory of their presence–to interview those who died at Auschwitz and see how angry they are at God. I wonder if those who dwell in unspeakable glories have solved the philosophical problem of suffering, and I wonder how they feel about people invoking their experience as evidence against God’s existence or goodness.

    If you need a water tight theodicy before you allow yourself to believe in God, then you’ll never be satisfactorily convinced. If you already believe in and love God, then you have your answer.

  4. Matt W. on March 1, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Dane: explain the intersection of the atonement with this. (My attempt is here.)

  5. Dane Laverty on March 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Harold, I understand that this is a complex and perhaps intractable issue. My goal here isn’t to solve it at a stroke. I only hope to offer a theodicy that sucks marginally less than the other theodicies I’ve seen.

    sl, I appreciate your sentiment that “[suffering is] the ONLY way to build a powerful god-like soul”, but it doesn’t address the issue that the distribution of suffering is immensely unfair. The only way I can see to justify that (as in my narrative above) is if the suffering of some leads to the salvation of many. In this sense, those who died at Auschwitz become saviors to us all. My narrative validates the sacrifice of those who’ve suffered unspeakable things without necessitating that we all suffer unspeakable things.

  6. Dane Laverty on March 1, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Matt W., your post includes a couple of great quotes from Joseph Smith that I’d never seen: “Before [the] foundation of the Earth…the Spirits of all Men ware subject to oppression & the express purpose of God in Giving it a tabernacle was to arm it against the power of Darkness,” and “God saw that those intelligences had not power to defend themselves.” Those are right in line with my understanding of Joseph’s view of our premortal organization, so I thank you for bringing them to my attention.

    As for the atonement, I’ve got somewhat to say but am on my way out to work right now. Let me take a rain check on that if I may.

  7. sl on March 1, 2010 at 11:09 am

    If I understand you right, you are thinking of humanity–or perhaps just some communities or nations–as a kind of organism in which, if some components parts suffer more it is okay because it’s working out better for the salvation of the whole organism. The same way in which a body might suffer from a virus, with some organs getting the brunt of the attack, but it’s okay in the end because the body as a whole is now immunized against that virus.

    I like the idea, but I still don’t see how it’s much different than saying “Well it’s all going to work out and make sense in the end,” which is fine with me, but doesn’t satisfy most people.

  8. Rameumptom on March 1, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I think it leaves us without an effective atonement. If the spirits involved (God, Jesus, etc) barely have the ability to hold things together, then they do not have the ability to atone for all mankind. Nor is there a reason to do so.

    It does not explain the ability to not only hold together celestial spheres, but even spheres without glory (Outer Darkness). How do those in the telestial realm hold their own kingdom together? And if it requires celestial beings holding it together, why? Why use up such limited energy and power on those who will not save themselves? Why not just allow entropy to take over on them, and start over?

    And it does not explain the power of one individual to provide resurrection for all.

    Finally, what then is Satan’s plan? How does his plan provide an alternative that is comprehensive and plausible enough to convince 1/3 part of the host to follow him into rebellion?

  9. sl on March 1, 2010 at 11:23 am

    It’s also worth remembering that a third of the host of heaven couldn’t satisfactorily confront the problem of human suffering. It scared the hell out of them and they opted out of the program. The way I see it, the fallen world, it was known, was going to be a placed where sh* happens. And if anyone had a better idea, they were welcome to go for it. Apparently a lot of them had a better idea.

  10. Dane Laverty on March 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Rameumptom, I think this narrative handles all of those features pretty well. In the story, God’s plan takes a lot of work. I could easily imagine a Luciferian spirit striving to convince his followers that it’s better to remain in the restful primordial spinning darkness than to go to all the trouble of living through God’s plan.

    As for the kingdoms of glory, they reflect the level of soulful investment a spirit is willing to put into the plan. To the soul who merely wants refuge from the chaos, a telestial level of work is required, while the soul who desires to expand his or her habitation to provide refuge to other souls will need to adhere to the celestial laws that govern that kind of lifestyle.

    Regarding the atonement, like I told Matt W., I think the narrative provides for a compelling atonement, but that will take me more time to present than I have at this moment.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 1, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    The sense I get from the scriptures about Lucifer and this followers is that they did not just “opt out” of the Father’s plan, but openly rebelled against him, and as a result of their unwillingness to come to earth to go through the difficult experience of mortality, were forced to come to the earth anyway, observing and trying to intervene but unable to obtain anything from their experiences, from the creation to the celestialization of earth, but schadenfreude.

    This leads me to conclude that the Father has a comprehensive dominion over the spirits he sees around him. He is not just a skilled craftsman, but the possessor of powers that exceed the sum total of all other spirits. When he creates a plan to bring us, potentially, up to his status, he is demonstrating power at the limits of our conception. His ability to make us like him is perhaps the greatest power of all, one that most Christians (Catholic and Protestant, as distinct from the Eastern Orthodox) would deny to their God as somehow offensive and off limits.

  12. Dane Laverty on March 8, 2010 at 9:53 am

    [This response took a lot more effort to write than I had expected. The atonement is at the core of our religion, and its effects have touched many of us deeply -- myself included. How can I express my concerns with how we teach and understand it?]

    Imagine that one day, while walking down the street, you are stopped by a man in strange attire. He chants a few arcane words and makes some mystical gestures. Then he explains, “You were under a powerful curse, but I have just removed the curse from you. That will be five dollars, please.” How do respond? What do you think? A problem you weren’t aware of has been addressed in a way that makes no sense.

    This is the way I see the atonement being taught in the church today. You’re travelling merrily through your childhood, when your Sunday school teacher tells you:

    “You’ve got a problem. You’re lost in sin.”

    Okay, so that’s a problem.

    “Your sins separate you from God.”

    That sounds reasonable. Heaven wouldn’t be heaven it it were filled with wrong.

    “But God’s son suffered unspeakable things, and that makes it so you can repent and be saved!”

    What? I can see how repentance is necessary, but to say that God can’t forgive me until some innocent third party dies? That makes God a cruel sadist. What kind of dad am I if, when my kids break the rules, I tell them, “Yes, I can forgive you. But first, Billy next door has to die.” I can think of several reasons that might explain why Jesus had to suffer the pains of all humanity, but forgiveness of sins is not one of them. In this model God is neither just nor merciful.

    Jesus lived and died for us. His followers loved Him dearly, and it wasn’t clear to them why things turned out the way they did. So Matthew identifies the Savior’s agony as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant. Then Paul explains His atoning sacrifice as His taking upon Himself our sins. But what did the Savior Himself ever say about it?

    3 Ne 2:15 — And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.

    D&C 19:16 — For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

    Matt 26:28 — For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

    John 6:51 — I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

    D&C 18:11 — For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.

    D&C 38:4 — I am Christ, and in mine own name, by the virtue of the blood which I have spilt, have I pleaded before the Father for them.

    These scriptures affirm the atoning power of Jesus’ sacrifice, but they give very little detail in how or why it works. Just to be clear, let me state that I believe Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. I believe that He suffered all things for us in His great atoning sacrifice. So, why?, then, if not to fulfill some Byzantine cosmic law of substitution? In the context of the narrative I give in this post, I would suggest that Jesus atoned for us as a means of literally becoming our God.

    In this narrative, God is god because He has the power to sustain us against the chaos of existence. He is our Father because He supports us in our immaturity until we become capable of sustaining ourselves. So perhaps the atonement was Jesus’ demonstration that He too is capable of sustaining us in the same way that God the Father sustains us, which allows God to delegate immediate responsibility for this world to His Son. Does this approach resolve all issues with the atonement at a stroke? No, but it’s marginally less bad than the idea that God couldn’t forgive us until He slew His Son, out of some necessity for cosmic justice. This also leaves plenty of room to coexist with the “moral theory” of atonement (http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/03/28/atonement-stew/ ), which I think is the traditional atonement theory best supported by Jesus’ statements above.

  13. Daniel on March 8, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    If the work (and glory) of God is “soul-making” through suffering, then at a practical level, when we relieve suffering (as commanded by Jesus), we are essentially working against God’s “school”.

    The problem with this “soul-making” metaphysic is the absurd ethic that is implicated by it. It leaves us with no ethical reason to oppose terrorism – which provides a great deal of “soul-making-suffering” around the world! It gives us no reason to rush to the aide of victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, pestilence, and war because all that suffering is God’s mechanism for “soul-making”!

  14. Dane Laverty on March 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

    If it sounded like I was proposing that suffering is the key to soul-making, then I must not have been expressing myself clearly. What I intended to illustrate with the story is not that the purpose of life is to suffer, but rather it is to learn to manage suffering.

    In this model, the reason we suffer is so that we can learn how to reduce or eliminate that suffering. From this perspective, tending to the victims of suffering (including ourselves) is the most purposeful work we can engage in.