I’ve written about theology before for Times And Seasons, but I haven’t actually done very much theology here or elsewhere in public. I have two reasons for finally taking the plunge. The first is selfish: I don’t think my ideas are going to get any better closeted in my own head. No one who creates really likes criticism, but ultimately its necessary if you want to get any better. The second is perhaps a bit more altruistic. I’ve written that theology is a kind of worship, and I’d like to illustrate what I mean by that.
Mormons believe that this mortal existence is a phase in much longer life story. We have histories and identities that predate our mortal birth, and the arc of our destinies lies beyond the horizon of the grave. The purpose of this life is to test us, but not so much as a process of evaluation as one of deciding and creating. The ultimate goal is, of course, unreachable. We are commanded to be perfect, but each of us sins and falls short. Only the unearned grace of Christ is sufficient for salvation. But the command is still in effect, and so Christ’s grace saves us from sin, but doesn’t preclude our futile efforts to resist and rise above.
The same holds true for theology. As Mormons, we believe that all truths can be circumscribed into one eternal whole. We believe that whatever we learn of those truths here on Earth rises with us in the next life. And yet our mortal attempts to discover or construct this grand unifying theorem are destined to failure here on Earth. Our enlightenment, like our salvation, depends on the grace of Christ. And yet, as with the fight against sin, it is a fight we cannot lay aside.
And so it is that I find the best of existentialism and romanticism in Mormonism. We must struggle all our lives wrestling meaningfulness from the barren and unyielding soil of a chaotic world that fundamentally does not make sense, and yet in the end we hope for a happy ending. This is the sense in which I take these words of Dostoevsky and MacDonald: I would choose Christ over the truth, and yet I dare believe that Christ is truth.
This is why theology is, for me, a kind of worship. It’s a useless but indispensable endeavor. And it is not enough to merely go through the motions. As with any ritual, the power is unlocked only by sincerity of purpose.
That’s’ the spirit of my theological endeavors. I am sincere because the famous quote of George E. P. Box gives me hope. “All models are wrong,” he said, “but some are useful.” Despite knowing I won’t ever reach the Grand, Unifying Theory of Everything, I might be blessed with some insight that is useful. And, armed with that hope, I’m able to strive sincerely. And in that spirit, here is a post–the first of a few. perhaps–where I’ll plant my amateur flag and venture into speculative Mormon theology. I’ll start with the ontological significance of free will.
I’m far from the first Mormon to note that our doctrine affords a unique perspective into the timeless free will debate because it teaches that we are in some sense coeternal with God and fundamentally uncreated. This creates the possibility for Mormons to believe in radical free will, that not only are we free to act out our natures but free to determine our natures. The problem with the first version of free will is that it is not free will at all and that not only do we lose free will in that paradigm, but existence itself. The problem with the second version, is that its hard to make sense of an idea of self-determination of our very nature.
The metaphor I’ve tried to use to articulate my view that free will and existence are tied together comes from the mechanics of wave propagation. (You can imagine why this has had less than widespread appeal.) The idea is that we frequently conceive of waves as being discrete entities when they are, in fact, merely properties of the water of which they are composed. If you drop a pebble in a pond, the concentric rings will appear to move out across the surface of the water but, as these visualizations illustrate, there’s no such horizontal motion. Another way to think about it as to imagine an audience at a sporting event doing the wave. Again: there’s the unmistakable appearance of motion along the stadium even though everyone involved simply stands up and then sits back down in their seat.
The point of my metaphor is that without some kind of uncaused, self-originating spark of will, the appearance of individual identity is a similar kind of illusion that mistakes properties of a single substrate for discrete objects. Without free will, we all fade back into the fundamentally undifferentiated substrate of the physical universe. Neuroscientist and philosopher Raymond Tallis explained the problem in this way (the context was slightly different, but the logic is identical):
Unfortunately, if you believe that these mental states are physical states then, some neurophilosophers have argued, they too must be the product of other physical states. They have a causal ancestry that reaches beyond anything that you would regard yourself as being. You — your brain, your mind, your consciousness — are wired into the universe. And the wiring does not simply connect you to your body, or even to your immediate environment; it goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe. In short, you are stitched into a seamless flow of material events subject to the laws of nature. Your actions cannot be in any way exempt from these laws. You are just a little byway in the boundless causal nexus that is the material world,
In other words: the stakes of the free-will debate are much higher than most people realize, because existence itself stands or falls with free will. Things to be acted upon are part of an ontologically undifferentiated mass of stuff, with no more fundamental validity for differentiation between Tom and Sue than a wave can be differentiated from the ocean. Thing to act, however, are, entirely different kinds of entities. I don’t think that this implies a binary categorization so much as a continuum. (The most breathtaking example of this comes from literature with Paul Bowles existentialist novel The Sheltering Sky, in which a character descends gradually from a thing-to-act into a thing-to-be-acted-upon over the course of the second half of the narrative.)
As long as the human beings are created–either by God or by physical processes–there really is no possible outlet for free will. Determinism implies, as Tallis argues, that we’re just another conduit through which causation flows. References to quantum uncertainty replace determinism with randomness, which is hardly any improvement at all. To go from “all my actions and perceptions are determined by a chain of causation starting at the Big Bang” to “all my actions and perceptions are determined by a roll of the quantum dice” is the epitome of frying pan to fire relocation. Mormonism escapes the chain-of-causation trap without relying on random chance, but what sense can we make of a self that is fundamentally self-determining down to its very nature?
Free will seems to depend on the existence of options. These need not be practically available courses of actions, but at least goals towards which the self can will. And so, if free will is an irreducible element of our existence, it might follow that there is an irreducible pair of options to go along with it. There must be some spark of volition at the heart of our essence that is intrinsically free and which simply wills. I believe this corresponds with the idea of “intelligences” which seem to be even more elemental to our identity than spirit, and the simplest candidate for this pair of options is Shakespearean: to be or not to be. The First Decision is to exist or not. This is self-referential, yes, but that’s why it’s fundamental. At the very heart of our being the core question we answer is whether to answer any question at all.
I don’t imagine that this question is ever answered with finality, and I think it’s intriguing to imagine that all existing matter exhibits some of this elemental spark. But from this central question, it is possible to imagine an entire universe of moral law expanding.
Perhaps the self can be said to more fully exist if it moves from solipsism to an idea of the not-self. At its most basic, this would mean the self perceives a passive environment. The universe expands from just “I” to “I and my environment”. But, to exist even more fully, the self can perceive the existence of other selves, independent but equally as real. The universe from just “I” to “I, the environment, and the other(s),” and the self is richer for it. I think that in order to fully perceive the other, however, the self must understand the other. I also believe, unashamedly citing Ender’s Game, that whenever we truly understand another, we must invariably love. The greater our understanding of the other as an independent self, the greater our empathy. Thus: our own existence is contingent on our ability to love others and the fundamental spark, the will to will and thus to exist, unfolds like a flower to the greatest commandment and gift of God: charity.
I believe it’s possible that all the various commandments which we obey derive from this kind of love, which I imagine to coincide with C. S. Lewis’s description:
You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent, as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
If this is true, then we have an existential basis for morality, which I admit just resonates with me more profoundly than the idea that morality is arbitrarily inscribed in the metaphysics of the universe just because. If this is true, we also have basis for a new conception of the term “God” itself. Perhaps “God” refers primarily to that point in conceptual space where a being has reached the pinnacle of existence through perfect, vulnerable empathy with all other beings. Any “person” who reaches that point would necessarily see eye-to-eye with all other beings who occupy that point, would follow moral laws in exact harmony, and could so be referred to as “God” for all practical purposes. This is not so much an alternative to social trinitarianism as it is a reformulation that provides a rational basis for why the Godhead would be in such perfect harmony.
In closing, I just want to reiterate why I’m bothering with this at all. I think about theology for the same reason, I believe, that others sing hymns of thanksgiving or write poems of praise, which is that I cannot approach the divine accept through the intermediary of some secondary activity. That’s what I believe worship is.
Although I’m reasonably confident that nothing I’ve written is correct in any kind of a final sense, I hope that the reasoning is sound and that there are some insights that can be useful. I want to do a good job of theology for the same reason that the ward choir wants to do a good job of singing. First, because bad theology is as unpleasant as bad singing, but more importantly because if we don’t try to do a good job in our worship it’s not really worship at all. Of course this shouldn’t obviate disagreement at all, but my hope is to create a model for communal theologizing where the first principle is an understanding that we can be unified in our intentions even if our perceptions are radically diverse. I have no idea if that will really work, but this is me putting my practice where my theory is.