Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is the Mormon God a Finite God?

Most of us would feel very uncomfortable with the notion that God was anything but omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient. Indeed, at first I couldn't agree with Dennis Potter's description of a Mormon God who was finite, even if it did help to explain the problem of evil and suffering in a created world.
"In some sense," Potter explains, "God cannot eliminate all of the pointless evil that exists."

I don't agree.  I believe that God can eliminate evil, but my current thinking is that he intervenes in worldy affairs very, very infrequently.  Though Potter never won me to his way of thinking, he does present a very cogent argument which got me thinking about Mormon ideas on the nature of God. And I am beginning to entertain the idea that perhaps our God is finite in some ways.

Latter-day Saint doctrine on the creation differs slightly from mainstream Christianity.  We believe that instead of creation ex nihilo, or from nothing, God organized elements which already existed to make the earth.  Apparently, there were some eternal principles already in place which God could not violate.  In the same way, he created humans.  We existed as eternal intelligences which God organized into spirit beings.  Then these spirits participated in developing a plan whereby we would come to earth to receive bodies and an education.   Because we were intelligences who already existed, God's power to create us in certain ways is limited.  This answers the question Christian theologians wonder of why God couldn't have created beings who could learn without having to suffer. 

Does this make God finite?  In a way, I suppose it does.  He does not have the power to work outside of the laws of the universe.  He must work within certain parameters in developing a plan for the salvation of his creations.  The Mormon Gnostic adds that
"if good and evil, light and darkness, are primordial principles, then they are not created by God, and God does not have the power to eliminate them.  The need to explain how an all-perfect God could allow suffering as the manifestation of evil becomes a moot point, because evil is fundamental to the fabric of our cosmos."
What do you think?  Is the Mormon God a finite God?


Confutus said...

Gah. The futility of debating such abstract questions is one of the reasons I decided years ago that that I wasn't going to become a philosopher. As much as I like to search out and ponder deep questions, there are at least two hidden assumptions in this one.

First, "the Mormon God". It seems that if there is one true and living God over all the earth, it is improper to identify him with the teachings of any one particular denomination.

Second, since "finite" has multiple meanings, the question is ambiguous.

SilverRain said...

I would add that calling God finite over that sort of definition is like saying that a marathon runner isn't an athlete because he isn't pole jumping the marathon. He has chosen to be a marathon runner, and is working within the rules of that marathon. It doesn't mean he can't pole jump his way through the marathon, just that he won't.

It is not that God cannot break the laws of nature, it is that He will not. He understands the laws and uses them. That is why He is God.

JayFlow22 said...

I would say He's finite in the sense that there are limits and bounds to what He does. He cannot be unjust or unmerciful...as Alma points out [God would cease to be God].
I would say that that doesn't make Him finite in the sense that we use the word. As Silverrain pointed out, the finite bounds are self-imposed by the fact that He is God. Sure, God is capable of sinning, or lying, or creating perfect humans [which BTW was Satan's idea], but chooses not to do so b/c He wishes to remain God.

mormongnostic said...

I think there would be less of reaction to the idea of a finite God, if one were to see the way that the notions of an infinite God developed.

The idea of an infinite God were drawn from Platonist and Aristotelian philosophies. Medieval theologians drew heavily upon the Platonist understanding of perfection to create their idea of an infinite God. For example, an infinite God must be immaterial because otherwise he could not be present in all places at all times.

Mormons have a history of rejecting the synthesis of Biblical theology and Greek philosophy, I think it is merely a consequence of that tradition.

Also, the main problem with a finite God, is whether he would be worthy of our faith and worship. Blake Ostler argues, "Faith requires that the object of its hope be minimally sufficient to bring about a realization of the maximally valuable state of affairs. The contemporary Mormon conception of a finite God is an adequate object of faith because all individuals, indeed all aspects of reality, look to him for the realization of all that matters most ultimately."

if a finite God is an adequate object of faith and worship, then I see little problem in adopting that conception.

MoHoHawaii said...

Joseph Smith's view was definitely that of a finite God. A physical, tangible God, made of flesh and bone, is necessarily finite.

This reminds me of a nerdy physics joke. Can God go faster than the speed of light? If so, what is his mass?

The joke for those of you who aren't into physics is that the speed of light is a hard limit, one of the most fundamental things we know about the natural world. As entities approach the speed of light their mass increases without bound.

But this is not just a joke. If you accept that our tangible God obeys the laws of physics you know that he is as isolated and impotent as we are. We are trapped by vast distances (and the speed-of-light limit) in a tiny region of the cosmos. So is any God of flesh and bone.

Modern scientific cosmology tells us a tremendous amount about the evolution of the universe. We now know, for example, within three digits of precision (!) how old the universe is (13.7 billion years). We know pretty much how it all rolled out up to a tiny fraction of a second after the singularity.

Mormons believe in a God of the gaps. That is, we resort to the supernatural to explain that which we cannot explain with science. Religion fills in the gaps. The trouble is that our knowledge of the physical world is growing. Compare, for example, what we know now to what was known in Joseph Smith's day.

G said...

it's my mormon roots that makes the idea of a finite (or non-omnipotent) God realistic.

I was raised knowing that there was certain things that God COULD not do, or he would cease to be God. (like bring us back to his presence after we have sinned).

while I have loosened my hold on a lot of the LDS particulars... the only way I am able to conceive of any sort of 'higher power' (or mysterious, 'out there presence') is by recognizing either the limited abilities of that power to intervene... or else the limited ability (desire?) of that power to be actively involved in every aspect of life here on earth.

just my two cents.

mormongnostic said...

If you accept that our tangible God obeys the laws of physics you know that he is as isolated and impotent as we are.

I see a finite God and a "God of the gaps" as distinct concepts. The conception of a finite God, does not entail that God cannot break the laws of nature. Such a concept only entails that God does not have all power, but doesn't specify exactly how much power he has.

Bored in Vernal said...

I'm not sure how "Mormon" this is, but I personally speculate that while God can manifest as a physical being, he is by no means restrained to this form.

Interesting and fun comment, Moho.

Maraiya said...

I think one of the problems with our vision of God is we are trying to capture a Celestial being with Telestial knowledge. I liked Moho's joke but I believe God travels faster than light without being of infinite mass; He is not a Telestial being and there are rules of our known universe that He is consequently not subject too. [Then again, maybe he does have infinite mass (a little different mass than ours - like the spirit from the body) and this is how He can be everywhere at once...sorry, rambling.]

I do agree, though, that He is - in a manner of speaking - finite. I think this is because of who He is. I think this is along the same lines of why we need to be without sin and become better people. If we could create something by merely uttering words (light, sun, moon and stars), what would we do with that power? Clearly, we need to develop into beings who would do that for an ultimate good and not for a small whim. God, then, while I believe Him to be omni..., does not do everything within His power to do. He chooses to be finite. As J pointed out, He needs to choose as He does or He would cease to be God.

Thomas Parkin said...

It doesn't both me in the least that God is finite. When we say that he is omnipotent, it simply means that He has complete capability to work to His ends, that is in securing our salvation; when we say He is omnipresent, it simply means that He can exert is influence anywhere; when we say that he is omniscient, it simply means that no knowledge is closed to Him, including the content of our hearts. More than enough to exercise faith in, without giving ground to a very spirtualized idea of God that used to be openly mocked in the Endowment.

I think as we move away from this kind of God Jospeh revealed, we move closer and closer to a God that is unknowable: not only a mystery, but beyond our comprehension - the very essence of apostasy, in my view.


Thomas Parkin said...

Oh! And Mormon Gnostic, the quoted paragraph is brilliant, spot on.

I've been fiddiling for a while with the idea of writing a book about metaphysical dualities: light and dark, good and evil, good and bad, life and death, etc. That paragraph encapsulates almost perfectly the main point I would choose to make on the nature of Evil and God.


Seth R. said...

I think the fact that traditional Christian theologians get so hung up on these kind of ontological and theoretical concerns is one of their biggest weaknesses.

Honestly, who care which God is? Does it make any difference to me whether God is co-eternal with the universe or whether God created the whole thing on the spot from a personal worship standpoint?

No it does not.

I think God is pretty awesome no matter which He is. I find these questions of a so-called "limited God" to be utterly silly and irrelevant. I don't care if He is "limited" according to some philosopher. To me, He is simply breathtaking and I will praise and adore Him.

Who cares about cosmology really? In the end, it all goes to the same place right?

G said...

thomas Parkin... apostasy, or heresy... such a fine line isn't it?
(though since one can be excommunicated for both... I guess it really doesn't matter, now does it?)

brooke said...

I'm not debating the concept. To me - this answer of - where is God during awful moments got answered recently when i was reading sermons by my new pastor - he said this:

"God promises not to remove our darkness in the present, but to walk with us each step we take through it." Rev. Paul Heins. He was preaching on Luke 13:31-35 and Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 when he said it.

It was one of those 'aha' moments for me. that's the answer to all the big questions of God and suffering - a question i've been asking for years - years of seeking God, years of giving up on my search, my 2 years of being LDS. All it took - at least for me - was 1 week of being Presbyterian in UT.

Anyhow - take it for what you wish, or not. The answer may not suit you - it may not be big enough. For me, though, it lifts yet another weight off my shoulders, because I don't need to question - where is God during those difficult moments - and I mean not just the simple awful moments in my life - but where was God in the Holocaust? Where is God for the Palestinians during this on going, so far 61 year, Nakba?. Even if I can't feel his presence, he's there.

Rich said...

In the first (unpublished) edition of "Articles of Faith", Talmadge wrote:

"Perfection is relative, progress eternal".

Joseph Fielding Smith made him remove it prior to publication. Sad.

If God really knows everything, what a lonely, BORING existence (s)he must live! Surely there's some room left for creativity, surprise, and the joy of discovery!

Bored in Vernal said...

Rich, what was the issue? God's eternal progression?

Rich said...

BiV, your guess is as good as mine, but I would assume that he was uncomfortable with the idea that God is still progressing too...?