The significance of embodiment in Latter-day Saint thought

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This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Doctrinal Insights from Embodied Cognition

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than members of any other religion, recognize the physical body as fundamental not only to our mortal existence but to our eternal nature and development as well. However, we do not think that most members have a full appreciation of the profound depth and breadth of our own doctrine regarding the body. Because of this, we don’t give the doctrine nearly as much consideration as we should.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Many religions believe in an incorporeal God. Where did this belief come from?

Incorporeal refers to existence without physicality; that is, something that is “incorporeal” is something that is not composed of matter, is intangible, has no body and no material existence. Many believe that God is incorporeal, and, thus, has no body and no physicality. Because He is without body, He is purely spirit, and, as such, has no boundaries and occupies no specific location or space.  Thus, He is everywhere at the same time. He exists in the realm of the abstract, the purely spiritual, the immaterial, and the timeless, wholly separate from and other than the physical world in which we find ourselves, and is so in every imaginable way.

The belief that God is incorporeal is, at least in part, due to the Greek origins of Western thought. The ancient Greeks were fascinated with things that do not change. Greek philosophers often disagreed with each other, but they almost always saw things that do not change as more fundamental — more real — than things that do change. James Faulconer wrote, “[The Greeks] believed that change is a defect, that whatever is ultimate must be static and immobile. What changes, including the world that we experience, is of a lesser order than what does not change.”((James Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (Provo, UT: BYU Press, FARMS, 1999), 136.)) For this reason, they also saw things that are abstract as more important than things that are particular to a specific context, and things that are outside space and time as more valuable and reliable than things that are physical and temporal.

In contrast, Hebrew thought and language focuses heavily on the concrete and tangible. Because of this, Faulconer noted that, “Unlike Greek, Hebrew does not conceive of anything immaterial or unembodied, even in thought.”((James Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (Provo, UT: BYU Press, FARMS, 1999), 137.)) It is within this context that the Hebrews gave us ancient scripture that describes an anthropomorphic God with body, parts and passions. When the philosophers of Athens heard Paul’s missionary message of a God who was compassionate and involved in human affairs, they responded by calling Paul a “babbler.” They said, “He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, following a remarkable spiritual experience, suggested the need for a distinction between the God of Holy Scripture and the God proposed in the creedal formulations of theologians. As David Paulsen and Hal Boyd note in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, “Pascal called the former the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the latter the God of the philosophers”((David L. Paulsen and Hal R. Boyd, “The Nature of God in Mormon Thought,” in Terryl Givens and Philip L. Barlow, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 246.)) They go on to point out that although “variously conceived, the God of the philosophers is usually portrayed as being beyond any possible comparison to earthly entities—an all-supreme, all-controlling, all-determining being that is wholly other, immaterial, immutable, impassible, atemporal, and nonspatial. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of Mormonism differ radically from the God of the philosophers.”((Ibid.))

A few hundred years after Christ’s death, the “fullness” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was no longer taught or practiced in its original, pristine form. Latter-day Saints often refer to this as the Great Apostasy. As Stephen Webb explains, for Mormons, “something went terribly wrong after the age of the apostles … and that something has to do with the theological turn towards a metaphysics of immaterialism” ((Stephen H. Webb, Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 245, emphasis added.)). Similarly, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught that, following the death of Christ, “there came a synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine in which the orthodox Christians of that day lost the fullness of truth about the nature of God and the Godhead” ((Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign, May, 1995, p. 84.))

Many scholars refer to this process as the “Hellenization” of Christianity. As early Christians adopted Greek assumptions, they reshaped their understanding of God in far-reaching ways. Because Greek thought prioritizes the abstract, the immaterial, and the unchangeable, Christian scholars began to think of God as an abstract being without body, parts, or passions, a being who exists outside space and time, who is everywhere and yet nowhere at all. Elder Oaks taught:

In the process of what we call the Apostasy, the tangible, personal God described in the Old and New Testaments was replaced by the abstract, incomprehensible deity defined by compromise with the speculative principles of Greek philosophy.… In the language of that philosophy, God the Father ceased to be a Father in any but an allegorical sense.((Ibid., p. 85.))

The result was that the dynamic, living, passionate, caring, and embodied God described in the pages of Old and New Testament (and the Book of Mormon) was replaced by the sort of abstract, unembodied, and timeless entity described in the pages of Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers.

In this way, the God who could weep with his loved ones at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35; see also Moses 7:28), the God who “groaned within himself” and was “troubled because of the wickedness of the house of Israel” (3 Ne. 17:14), and the God whose joy could be full as he called little children to him and blessed them “one by one,” weeping yet again (3 Ne. 17:21), became a thing of the primitive past. By the time of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Western world had moved so far away from the living God of the Bible that Martin Luther could argue (and have his argument widely accepted) that, even though “God is represented [in the Bible] as being angry, in a fury, hating, grieving, pitying, repenting,” nothing of the sort “ever takes place in him.”((Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, trans. Henry Cole (New York, NY: Feather Trail Press, 2009), 33.))

God, in this view inspired by Greek philosophy, is a being of pure spirit, an abstraction in the fullest sense. Furthermore, in this view, the physicality of our embodiment  is something that separates us from God and consigns us to an entirely different order of being than Him. It is the very thing that makes us fundamentally different from Him.

Joseph Smith restored the doctrine of divine embodiment.

As Latter-day Saints, we believe that Christ’s Church has been restored in our day through modern revelation. We believe that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ visited Joseph Smith and anointed him to be a prophet and a spokesman, just as they had anointed Moses, Samuel, and Saul of Tarsus anciently. And, in that moment (and on other occasions), Joseph Smith observed the physicality and living concreteness of God as the Father and the Son counseled with him face-to-face. (Indeed, it might perhaps be more accurate to think of Joseph Smith’s experience in the Sacred Grove as a “First Visitation,” rather than merely a first vision.  After all, he did not merely see the Father and the Son in vision, he was visited by them, as two embodied, living, and very specific beings.)

For this reason, as Latter-day Saints, we see physicality not as something that distinguishes us from God, but a large part of what makes our nature divine. Joseph Smith revealed, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 129:22). Elder Parley P. Pratt also wrote:

What is God? He is material, organized intelligence, possessing both body and parts. He is in the form of man, and is in fact of the same species; and is a [model], or standard of perfection to which man is destined to attain; he being the great father, and head of the whole family. He can go, come, converse, reason, eat, drink, love, hate, rejoice, possess and enjoy. ((Park, Benjamin E., and Jordan T. Watkins. “The riches of Mormon materialism: Parley P. Pratt’s “Materiality” and early Mormon theology.” Mormon Historical Studies 11 (2010), 125.))

In other words, contrary to creedal Christianity, members of the Church of Jesus Christ believe in a God of body, parts, and passions. And, as such, Latter-day Saints revere the flesh perhaps more than any other Christian denomination. As part of a larger poem, Elder Pratt penned these lines:

An immaterial God they choose,
An immaterial heaven and hell:
For such a God we have no use,
In such a heaven we cannot dwell.

We claim the earth, and air, and sky,
And all the stary worlds on high,
Gold, silver, ore, and precious stones,
And bodies made of flesh and bones.

Our God, like us, can hear and see,
Feel, taste, and smell eternally;
Immortal brain through which to think,
Organs to speak, and eat, and drink.((Ibid.))

The phrasing Elder Pratt uses here will prove to be significant for our analyses later in this series:  an “immortal brain through which to think.” In the view we are articulating here, God’s embodiment empowers Him, and makes possible the divine work He does. Pratt contrasts this with the sectarian notion of a God without body, parts, or passions: “The Atheist has no God. The sectarian has a God without body or parts. Who can define the difference? For our part we do not perceive a difference of a single hair; they both claim to be the negative of all things which exist—and both are equally powerless and unknown.”((Ibid.)) At the time, this was bold teaching—and it still is today.

The doctrine of divine embodiment changes everything.

In modern Christianity, embodiment, physicality, the “fleshiness” of our corporeal existence, is often treated as part and parcel with the baser half of our natures. In some Christian perspectives, it is the half of us that carries with it the stain of original sin, and, as such, is the source of our temptations, selfish urges, and bad habits. It is the barrier that stands between us and God. From this perspective, the divine parts of our nature are spiritual, for it is those parts that most resemble and share in the divine nature of God (who is Himself an incorporeal spirit, in most Christian traditions).

Interestingly, we can even see aspects of this dualistic assumption in science fiction. In the various Star Trek television series, for example, the crew often encounters beings of pure energy, or beings who have otherwise transcended corporeal form, and are treated by the show as more powerful or enlightened for having done so. Likewise, in the Stargate television series, the “Ancients” ascended beyond corporeality to a higher plane of existence. In these ways, physicality is treated as limited and limiting, a baser and less evolved way of living. On the occasions in which human characters express a preference for it, their views are treated as eccentric.

In contrast, we believe that embodiment is one of the primary reasons for morality, an essential aspect of realizing our divine nature. Our bodies are not what separate us from God, or what makes us different from Him; they are what manifest our likeness to Him. We were created in His image. We are not “immaterial spirits trapped inside inescapably sinful and rebellious bodies seeking release from the cursed consequences of Adam’s Fall.”((Gantt, Edwin, “Bathed in the light: Conceptual considerations for the gospel-centered psychologist,” Issues in Religion and Psychotherapy, 34, no. 1 (2012), p. 15.)) We came to earth and stepped into mortality in large part so that we take on physical form — and we do this so that we can become more like God.

As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland claimed, “We simply must understand the revealed, restored Latter-day Saint doctrine of the soul, and the high and inseparable part the body plays in that doctrine … A body is the great prize of mortal life.”((Jeffrey R. Holland, “Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” BYU Speeches, 1987-1988.)) Likewise, Joseph Smith taught, “We came to this earth we might have a body and present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body.”((The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, 1980, p. 60.))

In other words, for Latter-day Saints, the body is not a cage, nor is it a hindrance to our spiritual progression. Rather, it is the key to our divinization and eternal progression. Just as God’s embodiment expands His capacities and abilities, so do our bodies expand our capacities.

Series Navigation<< Mind-body dualism and reductive materialism

One comment

  1. I really like this perspective. When I was studying eastern thought I got the impression God was “nameless”. It was simply not possible to say his name. He had to be described as something He isn’t (Tao). I saw this same philosophy through Maester Eckhart. It gave new meaning to the idea that God couldn’t be named, as giving him a name gave him a form (the form you expected him to be with your bias and experience) which isn’t God. Therefore, the best description one might give is that He resembles silence. This was a profound insight. To know Him you must be silent (reverent), and accept the fact that you really can’t know (humble, removes ego), but by knowing this it opens your mind to new possibilities. Really, it was the start of the journey for me to accept Him in my heart.

    All this to say, I don’t understand how LDS can believe that God is made of flesh and bone. I’m not saying He isn’t, I just haven’t had enough study to fully accept this. Usually I feel light, and warm, when I hear a truth. But I feel nothing when I speak of this specific thing. I know I’m missing something, but what?

    I completely understand the only evidence we have is from Joseph Smith. Which is to say, like all things spiritual, to accept is to have faith. Prayer and scripture the only way to receive answers.

    I’m looking forward to the next parts!

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