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.

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2 Comments

Filed under God, Mormonism

2 responses to “The Mormon idea of a corporeal God

  1. alohalarsen

    Interesting post. Regarding your last section, you might be interested in reading a paper by David Paulsen called “Must God Be Incorporeal?” It was published in “Faith and Philosophy” back in 1989, and deals with the question of a being that is both omnipotent and omniscient, and also corporeal.

    If you can’t find it online (or don’t have access to a journals database) and are still interested, I can email you a copy.

  2. Agellius

    I’m enjoying your blog very much.

    Satan is asking what category or genus God falls into. The Christian has no answer to the question asked in that manner, because God is not a species belonging in a genus (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/nature_grace.vi.iii.v.html). You can’t say God is one of this kind of thing or that kind of thing, because he’s absolutely unique. He’s only like the things of our experience in analogous ways.

    Satan is basically arguing from the assumption that nothing exists which isn’t material, and the fictitious Christian just isn’t equipped to argue for the existence of immaterial things. But there are those who are (e.g. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/06/materialist-shell-game.html).

    For what it’s worth, here is Mortimer J. Adler’s argument for why God can’t be corporeal: http://agellius.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/can-god-be-thought-of-as-physical-material-or-corporeal/.

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