God’s Body Just Isn’t What It Used to Be

God’s Body Just Isn’t What It Used to Be June 17, 2015
What's in a body?
What’s in a body?

One of the things that keeps Mormonism from being Christian is its dogmatic attachment to god’s embodiment.  While the Christian world insists on god’s transcendence—that is, that god is immaterial—Mormonism clings to a scriptural declaration that god is embodied.  “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also”, goes the prophetic word.*

I like god’s embodiment.  The notion that god is in creation with us appeals to me, though I’m well aware of the idea’s silliness.  In the realm of religious ideas, which have to be silly in order to escape the knotty tendrils of reason, god’s embodiment doesn’t seem particularly silly to me.

Besides the delight of a dogma that simply says to the Christian world, “You’re not the boss o’ me”—a quality that is valuable in itself—the embodied god on which Mormonism insists brings the divine closer to humanity.  However silly it might be, there’s something nice about imagining that divinity isn’t above, beyond, and away from the existence the rest of us have to battle through, but is here, with us, along with us, really, and not merely conceptually.

But god’s physical body does present some head scratchers.  For one thing, god’s embodiment lends itself to the chauvinism that bedevils LDS-Mormon culture.  An embodied god, with all the parts and pieces of an exalted man, is a sexed god, and the model of a divine, male body presiding over the universe has imprinted itself for ill on Mormon consciousness.

And, of course, there’s the traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

But Mormons are stuck.  Dogma, in the religious world, simply is what it is.  Whatever theological frames one wants to construct must work around the granite blocks that are religious dogma.  So, Mormons, it seems, if they will be faithful Mormons, can only affirm god’s corporeality, and try to accommodate themselves to whatever unhappy things this dogma entails.

But what if corporeality just isn’t what it used to be?  Ya can’t mess around with the dogma that god is matter, but what if matter isn’t, well… material?

I’m not pointing to the interchangeability of matter and energy.  Whether matter is energy and vice-versa doesn’t resolve the paradoxes of a matter-bound god, since energy is still a feature of the very material universe we embodied people inhabit.  Energy, that is, like matter, is in existence, not transcendent of it.

In an effort to solve the so-called mind-body problem that is the absence of a satisfactory theory of human consciousness, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman has given us an idea so radical that it would simply be stupid if there weren’t some lovely science and philosophy in it.  Hoffman’s idea confronts all that the idea of transcendence implies, and also gives Mormonism the theological possibility of having its corporeal cake and eating it, too.

What Hoffman proposes in his book Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See, and some scientific papers, is that there is no such thing as the reality we experience.**  Our experience of matter (and energy) certainly happens, but does not show us what reality is.

Taking up the graphical user interface through which users interact with computers, Hoffman argues that the physical stuff of the thing we have agreed to call reality is constructed—literally (and I employ that fraught word here, advisedly) constructed—by consciousness.  The icon of a photograph file on your computer desktop is not the file, nor, even, is the file itself a photo, for that matter.  Perhaps what’s really there, for which the graphical icon stands, is a series of positive and negative charges that computer hardware can put together to present on your screen as a picture of a cat playing the piano.  Even if we don’t think of electrical charges and the binary code they inform, most of us understand that the icon is not the thing, though we are perfectly comfortable interacting with the icon as though it were.

In a way that, he insists, is not merely metaphor, Hoffman asks us to think of physical experience this way.  It isn’t just that the table in our kitchen isn’t really a table, hard and flat, but is, instead, a collection of subatomic particles that we don’t see, interacting with each other in a way that constructs the experience of a hard, flat table.  Hoffman’s idea is much more belligerent.  Physical matter, and energy, and whatever else “exists”, so far as we know, says Hoffman, do not “exist”, but are the elements of a user interface that makes it possible for us to interact with something else that we simply can’t access, directly.  Subatomic particles, too, are only, themselves, part of this Multimodal User Interface that has no objective, substantial existence.

Reality, says Hoffman, isn’t physical at all, even though, indeed, we experience it that way.  

The scientist is not coming out of nothing, since he’s proposing something that turns up in Bishop Berkeley, Plato, and Vedanta, to identify a few of the religious (or more-or-less religious) articulations of the idea that physical reality isn’t as straightforward as it seems to be.  Hoffman’s Multimodal User Interface theory (MUI) certainly lends itself, in spite of itself, to religious thinking, which has always been eager to imagine what can’t be.

Hoffman probably cringes at theological appropriation of his work, which he regards, justifiably, as solid science.  I think I’m not going to step on his toes, here.  I’m not at all interested in flying Hoffman’s MUI from a Proof-of-God Flagpole, and not only because the MUI doesn’t prove anything of the sort.***  I’m interested in the endless creativity of theological ideas, the play of which often (no, not always) transforms for the better how we treat each other.

Hoffman’s MUI makes it possible for Mormons to affirm and to deny god’s corporeality at the same time, which, in turn, makes it possible for Mormons to stay inside a community they call home and to call for changes in the way that home operates.  So, god is embodied—physical, material, flesh, and bone.  Various and sundry folks may very well have experienced god this way, and saying so helps to sustain the idea Mormonism contributes that divinity really does dwell with us.  At the same time, material flesh and bone isn’t itself, but only operates as an interface without which we can’t experience anything.  Beyond the interface—well, there’s no language for that.  But it’s other than sex identity, which is, by definition, bound to the material.  “Sure god’s a guy”, the faithful Mormon can say, “but not really.”

At this point, some Christians may be saying, “Umm… duh.”  A lot of Hindus must be saying the same thing.  Not to mention Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.  The world’s religions arrived at one or another iteration of this conclusion long ago.  But it’s also true that sexism in these traditions has been highly resistant to the gender equality that the notion of absolutely transcendent divinity implies.  Absolutely absolute transcendence—even when some temporary incarnation may be admitted—might inhibit the uptake of dis-embodied principles by those of us necessarily limited to what is embodied.

Mormonism is not even two hundred years old.  That’s religious infancy.  In the terms of human development, Mormonism is the three-month-old baby whose eyes aren’t yet able to focus on objects further than ten inches from its face.  We don’t know what Mormonism will grow up to become, but some of the characteristics of its infancy are encouraging.  The divine both-and of Mormonism, in which god is literally and eternally embodied while also—to the extent that Hoffman proposes that “physical” is constructed by consciousness—other than body and time, makes it possible for Mormonism still to bring to the world a religious notion in which divine transcendence eludes the bounds of matter, but is, nevertheless, forever, bound to matter.  That notion figures a transcendent ideal that is infinitely attainable in our not-transcendent existence.


* From the LDS-Mormon Doctrine & Covenants 130:22, which echoes Luke 24: 39.

** I have in mind, particularly: “Sensory Experiences as Cryptic Symbols of a Multimodal User Interface”, Activitas Nervosa Superior 52.3-4 (2010): 95-104.  This article provides a brief and accessible introduction to the theory.  An online version is here.  I’m citing the print version, since it’s on my desk in front of me.

*** Indeed, Hoffman’s theory works against the idea of a personal, super-being sort of god, since the theory is, by Hoffman’s own, explicit admission, monistic.  (See “Sensory Experiences”, 100.)

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