Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Mormon idea of a corporeal God

I’ve been rereading Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy, one section of which presents a “Dialogue Between Satan and a Christian” (§59, pp. 243-55). Satan begins by reciting a long catalogue of psychological needs which God satisfies and asks, “Is any further explanation needed why men cling to him?” — to which the Christian protests, “But God exists.”

“What do you mean?” says Satan. “What does ‘God’ mean? and what ‘exist’? Surely you do not believe that there is an old man with a long white beard up in the sky?” After a few unsuccessful attempts by the Christian to explain what he means, Satan restates the question:

Satan: I still do not understand what it is that, you think, exists, or in what way it exists. Does God take up space as you do?

Christian: Of course not.

Satan: Why, then, do you say that he exists?

Christian: Surely, many things exist that do not take up space.

Satan: Name three.

Christian: Does a dream take up space? Or a feeling? Or a thought?

Satan: Is God a dream, a feeling, or a thought?

Christian: Certainly not.

Satan: Try again.

Christian: What of justice?

Satan: What of justice indeed? Does it exist? Is it not an idea, or if you prefer, an ideal? Something toward which men aspire? Injustice exists, but justice is a name for what does not exist.

Christian: You admit that injustice exists. Does that take up space?

Satan: Injustice is a word that sums up a complex state of affairs together with the speaker’s reaction to it. It is not an entity.

Christian: Love exists.

Satan: Love is another word that does not designate an entity but a highly complicated pattern of feeling, thought, and behavior.

Christian: I never said that God was an entity.

Satan: But when you speak of God, you do not mean a mere concept or a pattern of human feeling, thought, and behavior. And I do not know what exactly you do mean. And I think you don’t know yourself.

Later, during a discussion of salvation and damnation, the conversation takes a similar turn:

Satan: What exactly do you mean when you say “saved” and “damned”?

Christian: Those who are saved see God.

Satan: Is God visible? I thought you said he did not take up space.

Christian: He doesn’t, and he is not visible.

Satan: Then those who are saved do not see him?

Christian: They are near him.

Satan: Near? But not in space?

Christian: You are being stupidly literal.

Satan: The fact is that I still don’t understand what you mean by saying that some are saved. And I think you don’t know yourself what you mean. You are repeating words that once designated very understandable superstitions. Now you denounce these superstitions but cling to the same words and believe that you are saying something. And the less sure you feel of yourself, the more you want others to agree with you, and the more you resent or pity those who don’t.

Having been raised a Mormon, I couldn’t help thinking how differently a dialogue between Satan and a Mormon would have gone. In fact, Kaufmann’s Christian bears more than a passing resemblance to the Protestant minister who used to appear in the Mormon temple drama as a figure of fun. Hired by Satan to teach Adam “a religion made of the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” (a turn of phrase Kaufmann would have liked), the preacher discourses on “a God who is without body, parts, or passions,” only to have Adam dismiss it all with, “I cannot comprehend such a being. . . . To me, it is a mass of confusion.”

The Mormon God is not a being without body, parts, or passions; rather, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22). Although “the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (ibid.), he, too, is in some sense a physical entity. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter . . . We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8). Not only does the Mormon God have a physical body; he has the form of a man — and, though this doctrine is not emphasized much these days, Mormons generally believe that he once was a mortal man like us and progressed until he became a god.

There’s something very satisfying about this — about the chutzpah of taking a rhetorical question by the horns and saying that, yes, there jolly well is an old man with a beard who lives in the sky! And the Mormon concept of God has one big advantage over that of most Christians, in that it actually means something. When a Mormon says “God exists,” what he says may be false, but at least it’s not gobbledygook. There are many questions a critic might ask regarding Mormon beliefs, but “What do you mean by exist?” is not one of them.

But of course there are also problems with the idea that God is a corporeal being. These are the two big ones in my mind:

God as Creator

If God is a physical being, then he cannot have created the universe, since nothing physical can exist without a universe. He may have created this earth, or this galaxy, or millions of galaxies, but he cannot have created the basic framework of time and space, matter and energy, in terms of which his own existence is defined. In Mormon scripture, God says, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24, emphasis added) — clearly not an ex nihilo creation as traditionally understood. The God of Mormonism is not an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing; he is not the reason why the constants of the universe are “fine-tuned” so as to support life; even the origin of man as a species can hardly be explained by invoking a creator who started his own career as a man. Although many Mormons (including my father) support the idea of “intelligent design,” it is really inconsistent with Mormon doctrine, at least so far as man is concerned. The human body predates God and could not have been designed by him.

None of this is problematic in and of itself, but it does undermine what is probably the most common reason people give for believing in God.

Omnipotence, omniscience, and having a body

When I say of a particular body that it is my body, I mean that I see with its eyes, feel with its nerves, know what its brain is thinking, and can control some of its muscles at will. None of this is true of other bodies, which is why they, by contrast, are not mine.

But if God is omnipotent and omniscient, he sees through all eyes, knows the thoughts of all brains, and can control all muscles in the universe at will. Given that, it’s not clear what it can possibly mean to say that God “has” a particular body in a sense in which he does not “have” all the other bodies in the universe. To “have” a body in any meaningful sense is to be limited by that body, and God is not limited.


Filed under God, Mormonism

Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

Walter Kaufmann ends his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy with an untranslated poem in German, entitled “Epitaph”:

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich’s Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen,
das sich grad am Brande nährt,
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader of Kaufmann who has virtually no German but would like to know what this poem says. The only translation I’ve been able to find is a tentative first draft (“there’s a lot in this one I’m unsure of, it may change quite radically”) by the blogger Peter Saint-Andre:

All is dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in the heat I offered up
my pain to heaven’s God.

Only the ardent passion
that once nourished the flame
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

Something tells me that can’t possibly be right, especially the last line, so here’s my attempt. The reader is strongly warned that I know no German whatsoever and did this translation by looking up every word in a dictionary and skimming parts of a German grammar. Still, since no professional translation seems to exist, I offer this for whatever it’s worth. My hope is that someone who actually knows German will stumble upon this post and set me straight.

All died in my heart
which was not pure fire:
In the heat my pains
I brought to God in heaven.

Only the flame-like longings
Which fed the fire
Have survived the heat
Even after it consumed God.

There’s much here that I’m unsure of, too. The word bracht is confusing, so I read it as brachte or gebracht. I didn’t know what to do with dar or grad, either, so I just omitted them. The dictionary says Sehnen is a noun meaning “sinews,” but that didn’t make much sense in context, so I interpreted it as having something to do with the verb phrase sich sehnen, meaning “to long.”

My version differs from Saint-Andre’s on two crucial points: (1) his says the fire is dead, but mine says everything but the fire is dead; and (2) his says God devoured the fire, but mine says the fire consumed God. Although I don’t know a lick of German, I do know a bit about Walter Kaufmann, and I think my reading is more plausible.


Filed under Literature, Translation