Bodies All the Way Down, and Up

However, a little reflection reminds us just how little we know when we say that we know the name of a star near where God resides: not much. We don't know the location of either that star or his residence. That suggests that we have good reason to suppose that the revelation which tells us about his habitation is meant to remind us of our ignorance at least as much as it is meant to teach us about that habitation.

But even given the differences there are in location, glory, workings, power, wisdom, and whatever else one would wish to name, and even given our ignorance of how to make sense of those differences and similarities, we believe that God is like us in that he is a material being in a spatio-temporal location.

It is possible that developments in quantum mechanics or other theories of physics may complicate the picture of what it means to be material, and result in a more complicated understanding of the possibilities of God's embodiment. We cannot be certain that our present understanding of what it means to be material is good enough to help us understand what it means for God to be material. But whatever the word material ultimately means, we believe that it describes God as well as ourselves.

The consequences of that belief are multiple, but consider only one example. Though in Mormon thought God remains omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent, given his material existence most Mormon thinkers have said that we must rethink those omnis.

If God has a physical body, then he is limited at least in that there are beings that he must see from one direction rather than another. The form of his body gives him a limit, outside of which there are other beings, and that limit will necessarily change how we think about divine perfections. It will not mean the denial of his perfections, but it will require understanding them differently.

The materialism that includes the physical embodiment of God raises at least as many theological questions as it answers, but as I've pointed out before (here, here, and here), Mormons aren't overly concerned with unity on those theological questions, emphasizing instead the unity of practice and love. And understanding God as embodied has the advantage that such an understanding conforms more closely to our ordinary thought about him.

What's more, believing that the Father is embodied does not contradict his perfection any more than Jesus' embodiment contradicts his. In fact, Jesus' embodiment is surely one of his perfections: he could not have suffered in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross if he were not vulnerable. But being vulnerable meant being embodied. Christ's sacrifice on our behalf required that he be embodied.

Mormon materialism sounds crazy to both most theologians and most scientists. But being thought crazy by both sides of one's culture isn't new. Paul understood Christianity to be in a similar position, thought mad by most during his lifetime: "We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23).

Mormon materialism is not as important to our self-understanding as are the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God. But it is very important to our understanding of God's relationship with us and our relationship with the world. For Mormons, it's bodies all the way down, and up.

10/10/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.
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