Earlier this year we explored some of the historical challenges for telling the story of “spirit birth” in Mormon theological history. In this post, we will turn our attention to the philosophical challenges raised by “spirit birth.” Again, here we are less concerned with tracing the teaching to Joseph Smith as we are examining the implications of spirit birth given our tradition. Some of the most detailed treatment of the topic is given by Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt. However, developing a coherent theology of spiritual birth is something Mormon theologians have not been interested in doing. Blake Ostler, for example, says little about this doctrine in his multi-volume series Exploring Mormon Thought, other than to conclude it probably does not originate with Joseph Smith. Indeed, others may feel little is to be gained from developing a theology of spirit birth. However, for those who are interested in developing a coherent theology of spirit birth several challenges exist.
1. Early Mormon thinkers believed that our spirits are fashioned from spiritual element or spiritual matter. Thus, God has complete control when he configures each of our spirits. Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt understood intelligence as an attribute of spiritual element. Thus, given this metaphysics, God is the one who determines the intelligence of our spirits, and therefore the question arises as to how fair it is to judge us according to our intelligence when this is predetermined by God when he creates us. Parley P. Pratt recognized this dilemma and argued that God does not create this intelligence. The level of intelligence, rather, is a function of the particular element used to form our spirits, and element differs in its level of intelligence. Pratt should be credited with acknowledging this dilemma even if his solution doesn’t quite solve the problem. One can presume that God still has control over the particular element used in the organization of our spirits. Isn’t there some consequence in how God creates our spirits? Is there any significant difference between God creating our spirits from preexisting spiritual element and God creating our spirits out of nothing? Doesn’t this lead to a kind of determinism?
2. Other Mormon thinkers emphasized that God doesn’t create us as much as he begets us. By God begetting our spirits, we “inherit” divine traits and attributes from God. This is couched in decidedly biological terms. Joseph emphasized the shared eternality between God and man. Thus, as the Word was “with God” in the beginning, “man also was in the beginning with God.” In contrast to this view, the model that traits are inherited via spiritual birth borrows from our scientific understanding of genetics. Yet, it isn’t clear exactly how or what we are inheriting.
3. Early Mormon thinkers, like Parley P. Pratt, believed the “spiritual body” was an exact facsimile of the mortal body, including all organs and anatomical structures. Yet, given our understanding of the function of human anatomy—taking the act of respiration for example, drawing oxygen from the atmosphere in order to oxygenate the blood—it isn’t clear exactly how an immortal spirit functions outside of a mortal environment.
4. Yet another problem is this: if our spiritual body looks exactly like our mortal body, and our mortal body is the result of specific combinations of genetic material, how does our spiritual body know what it is supposed to look like before we are born? This leads to a situation where if spiritual bodies are exact replicas of what our physical bodies will look like, and if what a physical body looks like is the result of unique gene combinations from our parents, then we are faced with a situation where God must predetermine every sexual union in the universe, or to put it in other words, that the future has already been decided, once more leading to a kind of spiritual determinism.
5. Early Mormon understanding of a “spiritual body” was that it was an organization of spiritual element that either is calculated to receive intelligence (Brigham Young) or reflects the attribute of intelligence in greater or lesser degrees (Orson Pratt). After B.H. Roberts redefined intelligence to mean a personal entity, the spirit body was re-conceived as a receptacle for this intelligence. Roberts explained that “Spirits are uncreated intelligencies inhabiting spiritual bodies,” but intelligences “pure and simple” is without a spiritual body. Roberts’ project was to attribute to intelligences essentially every power that a spirit has minus a “spiritual body.” Unfortunately, Roberts never explained the nature of a spiritual body or its function. Indeed, his project was not to formulate a coherent doctrine of spirit bodies but to infuse Mormon theology with personal eternalism.