Monday, December 5, 2016

Eternal Progression: Change as a Constant

(Image Credit: Guido Argentini Photography)

Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have contemplated the meaning of our existence. If heaven is perfection then what joy is there to be found in perfection? Do we ever stop growing and stop changing? Is there any meaning in the absence of opposition?

Mormonism’s unique doctrine addresses this dilemma with eternal progression. The principle of eternal progression cannot be fully comprehended, yet is at the basis of our Mormon theology. It first arises in discourses of Brigham Young, but is predicated upon the teachings of Joseph Smith.

As stated in the King Follett Discourse, “God was once as we are now, and is exalted, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret […] Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, the same as all gods have done before you.” [1]

Eternal progression inspires me as one of the most profoundly beautiful and unique aspects of our Mormon doctrine. Life is not static, we are constantly evolving and changing, and I do not see how eternal life could be static when there is endless potential within humanity. Eternal progression motivates us toward greater goals in an ongoing process of becoming—a process that God continues to undergo as well.

In a recent Dialogue article, Jacob Baker summarizes, “Meaning within the ever-expanding structure of eternal progression, is performative, not ultimately objective. Eternal progression is the exhalation of the ordinary man or woman, not defined and labeled according to his or her vocation or the ‘objects’ of his or her possession, but given meaning and purpose through capacity to act. Hence, human beings, like God, have the potential for radical ontological transcendence, not simply in transcending the world as immortals but also in transcending the self as gods.” [2]

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “The Church does not understand [God’s omnipotence] in the traditional sense of absoluteness, and, on the authority of modern revelation, rejects the classical doctrine of creation out of nothing. It affirms, rather, that there are actualities that are coeternal with the persons of the Godhead, including elements, intelligence, and law. Omnipotence, therefore, cannot coherently be understood as absolutely unlimited power. That view is internally self-contradictory, and given the fact that evil and suffering are real, not reconcilable with God's omnibenevolence.” [3]

This also suggests that even God's omniscience is not absolute. If God had a perfect knowledge of all things, God could not progress eternally. Likewise, if God had knowledge of all things then all meaning would cease as well. Mormons reject this logical defect with eternal progression. If God became God through eternal progression, God too is eternally changing. As Brigham Young stated, "There is no such thing as principle, power, wisdom, knowledge, life, position, or anything that can be imagined, that remains stationary—they must increase or decrease." [4] It appears that God’s omnipotence and omniscience are best understood as an endless development.

The potential of humanity to become God was also encouraged by Lorenzo Snow who taught that we are as God once was, and God is what we may become. [5] Ceaseless progression is not only illustrated in our temple ceremonies, but also taught by the current apostleship.

Elder Holland recently stated, “We’re the church that says we’re Gods and Goddesses in embryo. We’re the church that says we’re kings and queens. We’re priests and priestesses. People accuse us of heresy. They say we’re absolutely heretical, non-Christians because we happen to believe what all the prophets taught and that is that we’re children of God, joint heirs with Christ. We just happen to take the scriptures literally that kids grow up to be like their parents. But how does that happen? How does godliness happen? Do we just pop up? Are we just going to pop up out of the grave? Hallelujah, it’s resurrection morning! Give me a universe or two. Bring me some worlds to run! I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like line upon line or precept upon precept to me. How do you become Godly? You do Godly things. That’s how you become Godly. And you practice and you practice and you practice.” [6]

This is eternal progression, “All human beings are children of loving Heavenly Parents and possess seeds of divinity within them.” [7] But we are not to become just any Gods, but rather Gods exemplified by Jesus. Ephesians states we are to become Christ, "In love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ." [8]

This also gives us a few clues into the nature of God. Elder Holland says we are “gods and goddesses in embryo” and “priests and priestesses.” This is a direct reference to our godly potential as Heavenly Parents, especially our Heavenly Mother [9] who is often neglected from the conversation.

In Genesis we are symbiotically created in the image of God, both male and female, which denotes that God is both male and female. [10] Elder Erastus Snow stated, “If I believe anything God has ever said about himself […] I must believe that deity consists of man and woman." [11] In Second Nephi we read that God denieth none, black and white, male and female, all are alike unto God. [12] Note the scripture does not state we are alike unto each other as a homogenous group, but rather in all our diversity all are alike unto God. [13] Continuing along the logic of Mormon scripture, it is also clear that Mormons are polytheistic. [14] [15]

Now that we have established we are all children of God and are all endowed with godly potential, how do we get there? What does eternal progression look like? “Latter-day Saints […] constantly seek personal and righteous improvement not only by establishing Zion in this world, but by anticipating the continuation of progression eternally." [16]

We have already begun this process in faith and humility. Faith in this context forsakes its escapist nature and becomes a powerful motivator required to even undertake such a monumental task. Elder Oaks counseled that we do not have “sufficient spiritual maturity to comprehend God." [17] This profoundly beautiful sentiment requires us to have enough humility to admit what we don’t know about God, but have faith that we can come to know what we currently do not. If we could truly comprehend all the glories and mysteries of God, we would cease to be human and be one in God.

There are some secularists that claim faith is dead, and the world could be explained by science alone without a need for trust and faith. I believe otherwise. Faith, when practiced thoughtfully, is essential to our growth and progression. Discoveries are made in the spirit of faith. Without faith, hope or trust humanity would sooner wallow in nihilism.

As every Mormon knows, faith without works is dead. [18] We show our faith through our actions and manifestations. This is how we express our inner most desires and values. It’s how we truly progress. According to Elder Holland, in order to become godly “we do godly things.” One way we might become Godly is through an increase of “light and knowledge," [19] and the radical expansion of our intellectual capacities. "Knowledge is essential to our understanding of the purpose of mortal life and of our eternal destiny as resurrected beings after mortal life." [20]

Genesis supports the evolutionary sentiment of enhanced knowledge. When Adam partakes of the fruit in the Garden of Eden “The LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.”[21] This scripture supports the plurality of God and the notion that increased knowledge is essential to our eternal progression. "Similarly, knowledge of the mysteries of God also comes through personal revelation […] Knowledge is understood to be an active, motivating force rather than simply a passive awareness, or collection of facts." [22] It appears that the more intelligence a person develops the more Godly that person becomes. Elder John Widtsoe suggests that humans are superior to beasts because our material organization permits greater capacity for intelligence. Under the laws of evolution our material organization will become more complex and Godly. Conversely, God being a superior intelligence to us was once a simpler intelligence. [23]

It is also prophesied that during the millennium, knowledge will greatly increase, for the Lord will reveal all things and answer questions which have perplexed humanity concerning our origins [24] and that God will reveal all things. [25] We are to “ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” [26] Note this requires action on our part. Increased knowledge is not a product of a mystical transformation or idleness, but rather thoughtful inquiry followed by action. Keep in mind, the Sacred Grove wasn’t sacred until a 15-year-old boy dared to ask a question.

A revelation cannot be meaningfully received unless we are open to that revelation. Nor is there any indication that God is willing to override human agency and compel us into transcending our human fragilities. “It is not up to God to right our moral wrongs, to fix our injustices, and correct our oppressions.” [27] The Book of Mormon states, “do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?” [28] [29]

If we are to seek after further light and knowledge, what kind of cognitive enhancements or amplifications are currently increasing our intellectual capacity? The human species has engaged in cognitive evolution and development for centuries in many diverse forms. For example, formalized education systems, general health improvements, mental training exercises, supplements, medical drugs, and mental health care, are but a few examples. Having entered the technological era, we have increased our ability to consume information at a faster rate via human-computer interaction and increased access to information via the internet. In the future we may use even more sophisticated technologies to enhance our mental capacities and functions, like genetic modifications, prenatal enhancements, brain-computer interfaces, and collective intelligence.[30]

The enhancement of our minds and mental abilities are also directly linked to our bodily enhancements. The human body is constantly in a state of change where the majority of our cells are dying and regenerating perpetually. Some cells in our bodies change minute by minute while other cells are much slower to change or are perhaps incapable of regenerating without assistance. Medical technologies that enable our bodies to function beyond their expiration date continue to bring life, joy, and hope to people across the globe. Further development of these technologies may enable us to live longer, healthier lives. Current life expectancies are generally higher than they have ever been. Perhaps future technologies could enable us to live to the “age of a tree” as prophesied in Doctrine and Covenants.[31] For reference, the Bristlecone Pine and Patagonian Cypress live for roughly 3,000-5,000 years. [32]

Our bodies are constantly regenerating a continuous pattern of information that sustains the life of every being on the planet. If we look at our bodies like an organic machine it may even be possible to maintain our bodies indefinitely. The scriptures call this eternal life. After all, if God is God there is a wealth of knowledge and advancements we have yet to discover, but are encouraged to actively seek after.

Under eternal progression, or process theology, many Mormon thinkers have found that God influences and is influenced by temporal changes. In this way the future is open and allows us to act as free agents. “While it may be possible that God understands and can ‘see’ all logical possibilities, those potentialities are realized only in some actual futures. Furthermore, those futures’ realizations depend on the action of free agents.” [33] In other words, we are coeternal with God, [34] [35] we are encouraged to become Gods, and God has promised not to interfere with our agency. [36] Think of it as theistic Darwinism.

All things are constantly changing. “It either becomes more complex or more simple; it moves forward or backward; it grows or decays […] this is the greatest known fundamental law of the universe, and all things in it—that nothing stands still, but either progresses or retrogrades. Now, it has been found that under normal conditions all things undergo a process of evolution; that is to become more complex or advance.” [37] If we suppose that God is more evolved than ourselves, then evolution would result in a more diverse God, not less. Overall, evolution generally favors increased complexity over long periods of time. In this theistic Darwinian model, it seems the further a lifeform evolves into a greater state of knowledge, consciousness, and awareness, the more godlike that lifeform becomes.

Is there a limit to the changes matter will undergo? Is there a limit to the transcendence of humanity? According to eternal progression, the answer is firmly “no.” Process theology allows for limitless potential. There can be no defined beginning or end.

Evolution and eternal progression are often interchangeable in Mormon theology. The teachings of modern and ancient prophets, Mormon theology, Mormon cosmology, and Mormon philosophy mandate the definition of God as a superior intelligence evolved from a lower condition. There can be no logical objection to the idea that there are many gods, and worlds without end. [38] “Mormon tradition teaches that the eternities consist of innumerable heavens of types and degrees toward which our world may advance. These heavens are inhabited by a plurality of gods whom we may join.” [39] In this regard, the Mormon idea of God is quite radical, yet quite reasonable.

As our minds and bodies change, so will humanity as a whole. Eternal progression in this sense seeks to build Zion. Think of Zion as a community of radically compassionate, intelligent, and creative beings. Beings so far evolved from us that they would warrant a new term: posthuman. “Posthuman beings would no longer suffer from disease, aging, and inevitable death. They would have vastly greater physical capability and freedom of form—often referred to as ‘morphological freedom.’” [40]

We are collectively changing and adapting in our interactions, social and political structures, and religions. Statistical trends indicate humanity is adapting toward compassionate and productive trajectories—worldwide there is a decline in slavery, rape, war, child abuse, infanticide, animal cruelty, world hunger, and homophobic violence. Simultaneously there is an increase in women’s rights, civil rights, access to education, and medical technologies. [41] Zion wasn’t built in a day, but I remain hopeful that our efforts are not in vain. Eternity is now.

Mormonism is a relatively new religion that continues to evolve and change upon further revelation in an ongoing process of restoration. In fact, it is arguable that Mormonism’s uniqueness of continuing revelation makes it an evolutionary religion, at least more so than other forms of Christianity.

Mormon cosmology is unique in that it provides room for evolution of the human race as a constantly growing species that is capable of transcending the entire human experience [42]—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of all humankind. [43] In First Corinthians, we are invited to become a part of the body of Christ [44] and participate in this work—to heal, console, comfort, and radically improve the human experience. [45] Our faith without works is dead and as Joseph Smith said, “you have got to learn to be gods yourselves.” [46]

Perhaps humanity is destined for a cognitive revolution that would enable our transcendence. The technological revolution has presented us with unique opportunities. Technologies both simple and sophisticated are rapidly changing the human condition. Everything from eye glasses, pacemakers, orthodontics, prosthetics, medications, vaccinations, vehicles, computers, tablets, and smartphones have already drastically changed the lives of millions of people. “Mapping the first human genome required fifteen years and $3 billion. Today you can map a person’s DNA within a few weeks and at the cost of a few hundred dollars.” [47] We are on our way to become superhuman. Imagine what future technologies could enable humanity to accomplish. Perhaps the future is glittered with medications designed for your specific DNA, genetic engineering that could wipe out hereditary diseases, cognitive treatments to cure mental illness, or nanotechnology that could perpetually repair your body without invasive procedures. It’s true the possibilities are limitless and likely incomprehensible, and while risks are many and should be mitigated, I have faith the future is bright.

While these ideas and possibilities seem overwhelming, I am encouraged by the words found in Second Nephi 28:30, “Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto [them] that receiveth I will give more.” [48] Though the task at hand seems insurmountable, we must move forward with practical faith in our works. To live is to be in a constant state of change and growth. As we increase in knowledge, complexity, intelligence, and compassion the more Godly we will become.

While our church and its membership are flawed, I still believe in our collective atonement and redemption as exemplified by Jesus. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I remain hopeful that in the end goodness, compassion, and love will guide our eternal progression.




Notes and Citations


*Presented at Sunstone Northwest Symposium on Saturday, November 19, 2016 in Seattle, WA

[1] Joseph Smith, Jr., “The King Follett Discourse,” General Conference Meeting (Nauvoo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 7, 1844).

[2] Jacob Baker, “’The Grandest Principle of the Gospel’: Christian Nihilism, Sanctified Activism, and Eternal Progression,” Dialogue (Vol. 41, No.3): 71.

[3] David L. Paulsen, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Omnipotent God; Omnipresence of God; Omniscience of God,” (1992), accessed November 6, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Omnipotent_God%3B_Omnipresence_of_God%3B_Omniscience_of_God.

[4] Brigham Young, “Life and Death, or Organization and Disorganization,” July 10, 1853, Journal of Discourses, 1:350.

[5] Eliza R. Snow, “Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow,” (1884), 46. “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”

[6] Jeffrey Holland, Remarks given at Tempe Arizona Stake Center, April 26, 2016. 

[7] LDS Gospel Topics, s.v. “Becoming Like God,” accessed October 20, 2016, https://www.lds.org/topics/becoming-like-god.

[8] Ephesians 4:15 NIV. “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

[9] LDS Gospel Topics, s.v. “Mother in Heaven,” accessed October 28, 2016, https://www.lds.org/topics/mother-in-heaven.

[10] Genesis 1:27 KJV. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”

[11] David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “A Mother There: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, 1 (2011): 79.

[12] Nephi 26:33. “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

[13] Blaire Ostler, “Diversity of God,” The Journal of a Mormon Feminist Transhumanist, accessed November 13, 2016, http://blaireostler.blogspot.com/2016/05/diversity-of-god.html.

[14] Truman Madsen, “150-Year-Old Debate: Are Mormons ‘Really Christians?,’” San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 1996. “People tell us, ‘You don’t believe in one God: you believe in three Gods.’ And the answer is ‘Yes, we do.’ If that’s polytheism, then we are polytheists.” 

[15] Richard Abanes, “Becoming Gods,” (Eugene: Harvest House, 2004): 112. “Based on these definitions, Mormons are polytheists. Their recognition of other Gods, coupled with their admitted worship of more Gods than one, makes any alternate classification unjust.”

[16] Lisa Ramsey Adams, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Eternal Progression,” (1992), accessed November 6, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Eternal_Progression.

[17] Dallin Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” LDS General Conference (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1995).

[18] James 2:14-20 KJV. “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”

[19] Doctrine & Covenants 50:24. “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”

[20] Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration.”

[21] Genesis 3:22 KJV. “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”

[22] Richard Williams, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Knowledge,” (1992), accessed November 6, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Knowledge.

[23] John Widtsoe, “Joseph Smith as Scientist,” (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964): 137.

[24] Roy Doxey, “The Doctrine and Covenants and the Future,” (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1957): 64.

[25] Doctrine and Covenants 101:32. “Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—“

[26] Matthew 7:7 KJV. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:”

[27] Catherine Keller, “Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming,” (New York: Routledge, 2003): 140. 

[28] Alma 60:11. “Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? Behold, if ye have supposed this ye have supposed in vain.”

[29] Alma 60:21. “Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?”

[30] Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, “Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges,” (Springer Science+Business Media B.V., 2009).

[31] Doctrine and Covenants 101:30. “In that day an infant shall not die until he is old; and his life shall be as the age of a tree;”

[32] List of oldest trees, Wikipedia, accessed November 5, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_trees.

[33] Steven Peck, “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist,” (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2015): 53. “Taking from process theology, the theological possibilities of temporal theism have received a friendly reception among many Mormon thinks. In this view God has a core identity that makes him God but influences, and is influenced by temporal changes. In addition, the future is open. While it may be possible that God understands and can ‘see’ all logical possibilities, those potentialities are relied only in some actual futures. Furthermore, those futures’ realizations depend on the actions of free agents […] this viewpoint seems most open to theistic Darwinism by providing an opening for God to be part of the unfolding universe.”

[34] Gayle Oblad Brown, “The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: Premortal Life,” (1992), accessed November 4, 2016, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Premortal_Life. “There is indeed indication that the intelligence dwelling in each person is coeternal with God. It always existed and never was created or made.”

[35] Doctrine and Covenants 93:29. “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”

[36] Moses 4:3. “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;”

[37] John Widtsoe, “Joseph Smith as Scientist,” 104-5.

[38] Ibid., 138.

[39] Richard Bushman and Scott Howe, “Parallels and Convergences: Mormon Thought and Engineering Vision,” (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012): 82.

[40] Max More and Natasha Vita-More, “The Transhumanist Reader,” (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013): 4.

[41] Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” (New York: Viking, 2011).

[42] Mormon Cosmology, Wikipedia, accessed November 5, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_cosmology. “In Mormonism, the concept of divinity centers around an idea of ‘exaltation’ and ‘eternal progression’: mortals themselves may become Gods and Goddesses in the afterlife, be rulers of their own heavenly kingdoms, have spirit children, and increase in power and glory forever.”

[43] Moses 1:39. “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

[44] 1 Corinthians 12:27 KJV. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.”

[45] Lincoln Cannon, “Practicing Atonement,” Lincoln Cannon, accessed November 10, 2016, http://lincoln.metacannon.net/2009/04/practicing-atonement.aspx.

[46] Smith, Jr., “The King Follett Discourse.”

[47] Yuval Noah Harari, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” (New York: Harper, 2015): 409.

[48] 2 Nephi 28:30. “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”