An issue that arises in the study of the Mormon thought is the origin of the teaching that our spirits are begotten by God in a literal sense in the premortal world. In this post, I wish to bracket the issue of whether this view can be properly attributed to Joseph Smith. Instead, I’d like to explore our emotive responses to the various perspectives regarding our relationship with God. While arguments based on history or exegesis play an important role in these discussions, it is equally important to acknowledge that these ideas resonate with us at a deeply personal level in different ways.
Recently, I compared two responses, one from David L. Paulsen and the other from Richard Lyman Bushman. These are transcripts from audio so I encourage readers to listen to the original, if possible. Both individuals, I believe, articulate well why a particular aspect holds significance for them. Rather than offer a conclusion, I will let each statement speak for itself. What aspect of personal origins in Mormon thought resonates with you personally?
In response to two papers on the origin of spirit birth David Paulsen explained:
I’m not totally convinced . . . that Joseph Smith never taught or even endorsed a doctrine of premortal birth, but I will not press that issue here . . . there are also ways of formulating the doctrines of self-existent spirits and spirit birth so as to avoid contradiction, and I believe so as to preserve what is religiously significant in both. Personally, I find a reconciliation along the lines suggested by B. H. Roberts quite plausible and attractive . . . The doctrine of uncreated selves co-eternal with God has considerable explanatory power in resolving some of the most otherwise intractable philosophical and theological puzzles–most notably, the problem of evil. On the other hand, the belief that I am, in some very literal sense, the offspring or a son of God is ennobling, morally motivating, and spiritually satisfying. Being a parent myself the doctrine of God’s fatherhood helps me to understand better the love and the solicitude God feels for me and for all of us. May I say the doctrine tastes good and feels right. No wonder that from at least 1844 on, the doctrine has been taught in hundreds of sermons, articles, books, and manuals, and more recently popularized in the children’s song “I am a child of God.” The implication of [the] alternative, “I am a descendant of God” doesn’t quite do the job, religiously speaking; although admittedly, it stirs me much more than “I am the outcome of an accidental collocation of atoms” or even “I am a creation of God.” (audio marker 1:07:25 – 1:16:00).1
Richard Bushman recently explained his understanding of Joseph Smith’s cosmology.
What I think is also part of cosmology is what I call “the Stories of Eternity”2 that is, how the human intelligence wends its way through this cosmos and its pursuit of salvation. Again, you just can’t get any larger. You go to the limits of human imagination in Joseph Smith’s thought.
In response to questions about competing views of intelligence, Bushman responded:
Mormons all know we can’t agree on that. If we try to pursue how it actually happens, we disagree on [that with] one another. I like the Joseph Smith of the King Follett discourse which has the eternal intelligence that’s approached by God and God offers to take us under his wing, and to teach us how to become like him; that, I find a very inspiring story. Some people say, well it explains moral agency, that the human soul is never created. But that isn’t the part that interests me; it’s just that idea of us coming, as Claudia said, as we were fish swimming in the sea, and then we’re sort of formed into schools and shown how to go somewhere. I think that’s a lovely story, gives a very powerful perspective on all Christian doctrines and all life. Where we differ is in spiritual birth, because there are some people who say that we really, in a way, we lived before, but we sort of really came into existence when we were, as we always say, underscoring, literally born of God. I don’t know why they had to underscore that, but that sounds like child birth. We want to have a Mother in heaven along with Father in heaven. Joseph Smith never taught that. That is a doctrine that came along shortly after his death. I’m not arguing against it, but I don’t think it’s the key to the story. The key to the story is the moment when God offers to take us under his wing and we agree. That’s the great moment. (audio marker 32:53-34:45).3
1. Boyd Kirkland, Van Hale, David Paulsen. “Of Gods, Men and Devils: Eternal Progression and the Second Death in the Theology of Brigham Young -&- The Origins of Man’s Spirit in Early Mormon Thought.” Sunstone Symposium, August 24, 1985. (my transcription). Kirkland and Hale’s papers are published, but Paulsen’s response appears not to be available in print. Audio.
2. See Richard L. Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 64-80.
3. “Richard L. Bushman – Part 2” FAIR Podcast, Episode 4. October 24, 2010. (my transcription). Audio. For additional views see Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 60-62