The Treasure Cave of Mortal Thoughts

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Jeffrey Thayne

In recent posts, I have responded to the claim that God’s embodiment limits or constrains God’s power over the material world in some important way. I believe that the idea that God must be incorporeal to have perfect command over the material world is an assumption inherited to us from Greek philosophy; an assumption, I believe, that is unwarranted by scriptural revelation. Also, the belief that God’s power is somehow based in His knowledge of naturalistic science is grounded in naturalistic assumptions that, I believe, have problematic implications.

In response, one of our insightful readers commented that an embodied God must surely be a perspectival God—that is, he must have a perspective, rather than seeing the world from an acontextual view from nowhere. This, he said, would certainly have implications regarding God’s knowledge about the world, and His foreknowledge of the future. In the end, the implied result, I believe, is some kind of limit on God’s present knowledge… at least, a limited perspective in the world. In other words, “If God has a body, He can’t be aware of everything at once.” I have asked myself, is a limited perspective in the world a necessary consequence of embodiment? I honestly do not know the answer to this question. I reflected on what kind of lived experience supports this assumption.

Despite my inexperience in this subject, I would like to present a possible point of view as penned by a favorite scholar, Hugh Nibley. He reminded us that in this life we seem limited to one particular perspective—that is, we can only see in one direction at a time, and we can only entertain one thought at a time. He quoted research (I do not know how recent or accurate) that indicates that in those moments we believe we are thinking of two things simultaneously, we are actually rapidly switching back and forth between two thoughts. An example familiar to psychologists would be the figure-ground illustration in which you see either two faces or a vase… never both simultaneously. Some theorists believe that it is impossible to see both simultaneously; one fades when you focus on the other. Psychologists may dispute the details of how these things work; some may claim that we rely too much on an atomistic paradigm in human perception, and embrace instead a gestaltist paradigm. Despite the theoretical frameworks used to account for human perception, there is little doubt that we most frequently experience the world as if we are limited to focusing on one object at a time, one perspective at a time, one thought at a time, etc.

Divine thoughts. The question then arises, is this way of experiencing the world a necessary consequence of our embodiment? Nibley didn’t believe so. He explains:

What would it be like if I could view and focus on two or more things at once, if I could see at one and the same moment not only what is right before me but equally well what is on my left side, my right side, what is above me and below me? I have the moral certainty that something is there, and as my eyes flicker about, I think I can substantiate that impression. But as to taking a calm and deliberate look at more than one thing at a time, that is a gift denied us at present. I cannot imagine what such a view of the world would be like; but it would be more real and correct than the one we have now. I bring up this obvious point because it is by virtue of this one-dimensional view of things that we magisterially pass judgment on God. The smart atheist and pious schoolman alike can tell us all about God—what he can do and what he cannot, what he must be like and what he cannot be like—on the basis of their one-dimensional experience of reality. … [We assume] that God is subject to the same mental limitations that we are; that if he is thinking of Peter, he can hardly be thinking of Paul at the same time, let alone marking the fall of the sparrow. But once we can see the possibilities that lie in being able to see more than one thing at a time (and in theory the experts tell us there is no reason why we should not), the universe takes on new dimensions and God takes over again. Let us remember that quite peculiar to the genius of Mormonism is the doctrine of a God who could preoccupy himself with countless numbers of things: ‘The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine’ (Moses 1:37).1

Presently, when we focus on one thing, we do so to the exclusion of other things. We assume, then, that a personal and loving God would have to devote or focus time on us to the exclusion of others in that same moment. However, what if this limitation is merely the product of our mortality? What if God can take personal notice of many things simultaneously, in a way that we presently cannot? It is a possibility that I do not believe is denied to Him merely because of His physical embodiment.

Mortal thoughts. It’s easy to see why it would be important for Heavenly Father to be able to think of multiple things at once; hearing and answering prayers is one example. But even if he can concentrate on infinite things at once, it’s clear that we mortals cannot. Nibley then asks an important question: “Why this crippling limitation on our thoughts if we are God’s children?”1 He continues,

This puts us in the position of the fairy-tale hero who is introduced into a cave of incredible treasures and permitted to choose from the heap whatever gem he wants—but only one. What a delightful situation! I can think of anything I want to—absolutely anything!—with this provision: that when I choose to focus my attention on one object, all other objects drop into the background. I am only permitted to think of one thing at a time; that is the one rule of the game.

… It is precisely this limitation that is the essence of our mortal existence. If every choice I make expresses a preference, if the world I build up is the world I really love and want, then with every choice I am judging myself, proclaiming all the day long to God, angels, and my fellowmen where my real values lie, where my treasure is, the things to which I give supreme importance. Hence, in this life every moment provides a perfect and foolproof test of your real character, making this life a time of testing and probation.1

Whether Nibley’s perspective is true or not, it provides an exciting insight on the nature and purpose of our mortal experience, and a kind of urgency to prioritize our thoughts and actions. While eternal beings may be able to think simultaneous thoughts, our mortal limitation to one thought at a time gives us the opportunity to decide and demonstrate which thoughts matter most to us (an opportunity which, perhaps, we did not have as a spirit-only being). By being forced to think of only one thing at a time, we show what kinds of thoughts we think are most important, and what kind of being we want to become.

I suppose it is possible that this point of view is the result of wanting to believe the doctrine of divine embodiment but ignore the consequences of that embodiment; however, while I find the assumptions about the limits of embodiment logically compelling, I can find no scriptural warrant for them. For that reason, it is important to entertain alternative possibilities that may even have meaningful implications in our lives—for example, the possibility that God has a much greater capacity for perception than we do, and is not limited in His perspective in the same way that we are.

1. Hugh Nibley, “Zeal Without Knowledge,” Approaching Zion (Deseret Book, 2003)


  1. Jeff,

    Nice post. I think you bring up some excellent points, and I think I agree with everything you say here.

    Perhaps you were only commenting on a possible line of thought from what I said before (I’m pretty sure I’m the “insightful reader” you’re referring to), but I just want clarify that I don’t see what I said (that God must be perspectival) as having implications regarding “limits” of God’s knowledge. It would certainly have implications, though, in the sense that God’s knowledge is never “objective” or “unbiased” in the technical senses of these terms (I think you would agree).

    It is true that I think that God’s perspectival thought quite possibly (though not certainly) has implications regarding His foreknowledge. But I don’t see how this implies a limitation of “present” knowledge. God can truly know “all things” at once. The question is simply whether the future is a thing. As I’ve said before, I think that the future can properly be called a thing, but only as it manifests itself in “the now,” and the way it manifests itself might be able to change, at least in some respect, because of man’s free actions.

    I understand you might not want to talk about this (you don’t have to respond), It is not enough to say that God can have perfect knowledge of an inevitable future by virtue of the fact that he can see many things at once (I realize you’re not saying this, but I’m anticipating certain connections that some might make). If this is the case, then it must mean that the present “data” of God’s experience points to a “fixed” outcome. I’m uncomfortable with this proposition, as I cannot see any way to reconcile genuine agency with it.

    [corrected from original]

  2. Thanks for your clarifications! True, I was only responding to a *possible* implication of a perspectival God, and an implication that I was sure you didn’t endorse. So in that sense, I wasn’t responding to you per se, but thoughts I had while pondering your comments.

    Dennis: As I’ve said before, I think that the future can properly be called a thing, but only as it manifests itself in “the now,” and the way it manifests itself might be able to change, at least in some respect, because of man’s free actions.

    I really appreciate this perspective, and I think I agree with it. I think what we both have trouble with is definitive foreknowledge… the idea of an inevitable future. The idea of an inevitable future is based upon linear time (one day I will get around to writing about how the Hebrew language talks about time differently), an assumption that, thanks to Dr. Slife, I am now suspicious of.

  3. I don’t see why God can’t have a perspective, be embodied, and still have a complete knowledge of all things, past, present, and future. My logic does not make those three situations mutually exclusive.
    As far as a definitive foreknowledge? I think Jeff is on to something (and I’ve mentioned it in past comments) that our linear concept of time limits our ability to even BEGIN to comprehend eternity. I am also thinking that Picasso might like this post, particularly what Nibley had to say!

  4. It’s interesting that some elements of Nibley’s views here come out of his rather Platonistic tendencies. i.e. his frequent complaint about mortals being able to focus only on a few things whereas all things are before God. I’m not sure that’s true of God. I don’t think we know anything about what consciousness means to God. (And would multiple focuses entail multiple consciousness?)

    The problem I have with Nibley’s views here is that he definitely privileges the aesthetic of the intellectual above other kinds of behaviors. (There’s a few posts at Maverick Philosopher this week that do the same) Since Nibley enjoys intellectual activities above others this makes sense. But I tend to see D&C 131 entailing something broader in the divine life. As such I tend to get nervous when folks like Nibley over-emphasize the intellectual to such an extent. But much of bodily being entails there being a perspective. To me Nibley’s intellectual love suggests a kind of intellectual abstraction that de-values perspectivism. Yet to me what is so great about the LDS conception of God and heaven precisely is the abandonment of what some call the “God’s eye view” or the Platonic ideal of the intellectual realm.

  5. BTW – while Hebrew time talks about things differently this is in terms of the meaning of things. Time is more like a song with repetitious patterns. (Interestingly many modern philosophers not aware of the similarities make very similar moves – thinking here of Heidegger or Peirce)

    The problem is that the kinds of meanings that are wrapped up in a discussion of foreknowledge simply aren’t the kinds of meanings that Hebrew discussion notes. Now one could argue that this entails that OT discussions of foreknowledge are more akin to knowledge of refrains, stanzas, or melodies. Less a repetition of the same than the repetition of the similar. When we conflate the Greek absolutist view with this more musical sense we end up with say Stoic metaphysics. But if we separate them then we’re left just saying we have two incommesurate sorts of discourse. Which is an other way of saying that the Hebrew view simply can’t help us much in the kinds of questions about foreknowledge that are relevant to us.

  6. Clark,

    I think that the Platonism you are referring to is that concept that physical world is somehow less real and less important than the intellectual realm; that our bodies are, in some ways, cages and escape is possible through intellectual enlightenment. Thus, a natural result of this philosophy would be an emphasis and priority on intellectual endeavors in contrast with less meaningful, less useful physical pursuits. It is true that Nibley generally found intellectual endeavors to be far more important than other (what he would call “worldly” or “menial” ) activities. I agree, the eternal world encompasses far more than intellectual achievement.

  7. It’s debatable whether Plato was quite as anti-matter as some portray. That’s true even of the neoPlatonists who perhaps are more deserving to the rap. The portrayal of them as near gnostic seems off quite often. (Although it often is correct) One need only to look at Platonists like Emerson to see this. The One is always immanent in matter.

    Having said that though all Platonists tend to privilege a kind of intellectual comportment with the world as opposed to the other ways in which we engage the world. Nibley does that, which was ultimately my point. I think Nibley wrong in that and I wonder if he wasn’t in a nice air conditioned library where all the things he wanted basically were given him if he’d have the same views.

  8. To add, I don’t mean the above as a slam on Nibley. Just that he has his blind spots and knowing them affects how we evaluate some of his other views.

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