God and Being

One of the big differences between our faith and traditional Christianity is over the question of Being. Being is one of those weird terms that confuses people studying philosophy. The idea is that “to be” whether within our conscious perception or out in the world has to have an origin. Within our materialist way of thinking about the world in contemporary western thought the issue is why is there matter and/or space. Sometimes well meaning physicists will trot out equations of basic physics and say that’s the answer. But that just pushes the question down a level. Where did those equations come from and why do they work? Asking these questions more or less pushes one into the traditional question of Being that often has strong theological overtones even when an atheist is asking them.

Historically the Christian God gets mixed in with Greek philosophical thinking of this origin in late antiquity. While the questions start before him, Augustine usually gets the blame for intrinsically tying Being as this ultimate origin with the God of the Bible. Much of the thought of Greek thought, especially within neoplatonism, merges with Christianity with one major difference. The pagan philosophers usually thought of existence (whether the outside world or the psychic inner existence) as a series of emanations from an ultimate source. Reality was a matter of degree as one gets further away from the origin. Within Christianity theologians rejected this aspect of neoplatonism. Instead we got creation ex nihilo which put an absolute gulf between God (now the Trinity) and creation. God creates, but he creates out of nothing rather than out of himself.

Sometimes philosophers refer to this as the God of Jerusalem — the interventionist personal God of the Bible — merging with the God of Athens — the abstract non-personal God as the ground of existence. The early Jewish conception of God finds him already within the world. These creation accounts talk of God amongst the primordial waters of chaos organizing them. Often this creation as organization was seen as repeated and ongoing. The abstract God as Being is prior to such things.

The Restoration typically is seen both in terms of modern materialism but also a rejection of this equating of God with Being. Rather than focusing on fundamental ontology and God as the source of all that is, we see God as the craftsman, organizer and literal father. He’s emphasized as a person the way we are persons with implications of limits on God. Salvation itself becomes seen as a kind of character development intrinsically required because of God’s limits on making us. Creation ex nihilo over time becomes the key characteristic of the apostasy along with the loss of pre-existence and a expansive more materialist conception of salvation. God as the very source of existence is largely forgotten.

A twofold problem with this conception emerges. First of some passages such as D&C 93:19-40 or D&C 88:5-13 have pretty clear neoplatonic overtones to the point some historians think Joseph was influence by neoplatonism. Secondly, even if we reject God the Father as being Being itself, the question of Being doesn’t go away anymore than it does for atheists. Both reject traditional Christianity albeit in different fashions. Both existence materially conceived and presence to our consciousness seem foundational. Yet both are strangely mostly absent from our thought.

They do pop up somewhat. Orson Pratt, for instance, reconceives the Trinity within an early modernist materialist cosmology. A fluid that permeates all things is pure divine intelligence. When any divine being, like the Father or Jesus, are divine it is due to their unity with this more foundational fluid that gives them the attributes of divinity. I suspect Pratt came up with this view after reading about the early Church Father Tertullian. Tertullian held an early view of the Trinity that was materialistic and based upon Stoicism. Stoic Spirit permeates the universe and is the origin of the universe. Reason itself is tied to this spirit as an ordering principle. For Pratt there are some differences. His fluids are atomistic fluids in terms of the science of his time. However fundamentally God’s ground — the ousia in the Trinity — becomes this fluid. Further this fluid organizes all things including the laws of physics. It’s a short jump from this to a question of Being.

An other place it pops up is in the Mormon appropriation of the neoplatonic chain of being. Sam Brown’s “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging” is the classic paper on the chain of being. The idea is that intelligence and everything else emanates out from a pure source with each level being a slightly lower level of being or intelligence. Brown ties this to Thomas Dick’s writings that he sees influencing Joseph Smith. I’m a little more skeptical there although there definitely are some parallels. Sam really doesn’t get at the origin or Being itself though. I think a similar lack is just characteristic of Mormon thought in general.

The question ultimately is for the Restoration what the relationship between Being and God ultimately is. We might be deeply distrustful of a simple equating of God as Being with God as person. It’s not exactly clear though that we should adopt an ontology that atheists adopt regarding Being.

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