Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Body: Sacred Or Profane?

One of the early Christian sects, the Gnostics, believed that the human body was evil. They even saw the human body as a prison for the soul and that salvation consisted, in part, of escaping the confines of this mortal shell. The pleasures of mortality were especially reprehensible and those who indulged in the pleasures of this world could find their souls continually imprisoned even after death, never to return to God. The Gnostics were not alone in their negative views of the human body, nor are these ideas confined to ancient times. It is quite common today for people to have negative views of the body and these sentiments are not exclusively from religion. The Buddhist concept of the body doesn’t malign the body per se but sees the escape from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, as the ultimate goal. This escape is Nirvana. In the Pali language “Nibbana” means “blowing out”, that is to say a blowing out of the fires of greed and hatred. Here also, is the ultimate goal of escape from the body.

In the Bible and in Christian discourse, the flesh, the body is sometimes synonymous with corruption. Here are some examples:

“With the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25)

“That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:4-5)

“So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8)

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” (1 Corinthians 15:50)

It can be seen from these scriptures why Christians have developed a negative view of the body, or “the flesh”. But is the body really what is corrupt? What are we to do with the body? How should we view it?

Joseph Smith taught a very different doctrine about the body. He said: “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment.” [1] Historian and biographer Richard Bushman said: “Joseph had little sense of the flesh being base. In contrast to conventional theologies, Joseph saw embodiment as a glorious aspect of human existence.” [2] Furthermore, Joseph Smith understood the salvation of the soul to consist of saving both the spirit and the body. “The perfection Joseph sought was physical as much as spiritual. The September priesthood revelation [Doctrine and Covenants 84] had said priesthood holders would be “sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies... The underlying idea of the ‘Word of Wisdom’ was not to escape the physical, as hermetic and mystical philosophies taught, but to preserve and purify the flesh. Joseph’s religion made the body essential to human fulfillment and godliness. The exaltation revelations had told the Saints that ‘the spirit and the body is the soul of man,’ and only when joined eternally could a person receive ‘a fulness of joy.’ ‘When separated, man c[a]nnot receive a fulness of joy.” Joseph exalted the body rather than seeking to free the spirit from the flesh. Dead souls considered ‘the long absence’ of their spirits from their bodies ‘to be a bondage.’ The highest reward for a worthy spirit, the ‘Olive Leaf’ [Doctrine and Covenants 88] had said, was to receive a ‘natural body.’ [3]

Joseph not only taught that the body is something good and holy but he also taught that God the Father has a body. “That which is without body, parts and passions is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones (John 5:26). As the Father hath life in himself, even so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself. God the Father took life unto himself precisely as Jesus did.” [1] Later, in the now-canonized Doctrine and Covenants verse he taught: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22)

On August 8, 1901 B.H. Roberts delivered a lecture before the conference of the Mutual Improvement Associations of the Salt Lake Stake of Zion. The title of his lecture was “The ‘Mormon’ Doctrine of Deity. In his lecture he stated:

“I take it that we may classify under three heads the complaints here made against us with reference to the doctrine of Deity.

“First, we believe that God is a being with a body in form like man’s; that he possesses body, parts and passions; that in a word, God is an exalted, perfected man.

“Second, we believe in a plurality of Gods.

“Third, we believe that somewhere and some time in the ages to come, through development, through enlargement, through purification until perfection is attained, man at last, may become like God—a God.” [4]

A reply was published in the Improvement Era by Reverend C. Van der Donckt, of the Catholic Church, Pocatello, Idaho. In his response, Van der Donckt presented an extensive treatment of each of the points Roberts had taught in his lecture. Van der Donckt challenged Roberts in both scripture and philosophy. His philosophical arguments against God’s corporeality were particularly intriguing.

“The ‘Mormons’ admit that God existed from all eternity; consequently, there was no time at which God did not exist. Therefore, the Eternal Being, or God, must be simple.

“A compound is, at least by nature, posterior to its component parts. If God is a compound, he is posterior to his component parts. Therefore, he would not be eternal; therefore, not God...

“Fancy a clock, an engine, a shoe, or any composite being. The parts must exist before the whole. Then to have the compound, some one or something must do the compounding, or put the ingredients or elements together. Who then did compound the Eternal?” [5]

“Several finite things cannot produce an infinite or an illimitable, as there would always be a first and a last... If one is infinite, nothing can be added to it. Finite parts could not belong to the infinite essence, else they would communicate limitations to God. Therefore, the Infinite Being is not composite, but simple or spiritual. Therefore, he is not, nor ever was, a man, who is a composite being.” [6]

To put what Van der Donckt is saying another way—if God has a body, that body is composed of many parts. For example, the human body contains approximately 50 trillion cells—it is far from simple. Even the individual cells of the body are complex constructions of many atoms into biomolecules of high molecular weight. If God’s body is similarly formed of multiple parts how can he be eternal or infinite, being himself preceded by the elements of which he is composed?

Roberts responded as follows:

“Mr. Van der Donckt himself says: 'Something is limited not because it is (i.e. exists): but because it is this or that; for instance, a stone, a plant, a man'—or a person, I suggest. For if God has personality, he is a person, a something, and hence limited,.. as he must be when conceived of as this or that, as a person for instance, then of course not infinite being; and thus my friend’s doctrine of God’s 'simplicity' is destroyed the moment he ascribes personality to Deity.” [7]

Roberts’ point here seems to be that if you ascribe any characteristic or description about God then you limit him as an infinite being. Roberts did not have much of a problem with this because he did not consider Mormon doctrine to be bound to the creedal assumption that God should be infinite or simple.

“But we have already seen that God cannot be considered as absolutely infinite, because we are taught by the facts of revelation that absolute infinity cannot hold as to God; as a person, God has limitations, and that which has limitations is not absolutely infinite. If God is conceived as absolutely infinite, in his substance as in his attributes, then all idea of personality respecting him must be given up; for personality implies limitations.” [8]

There seems to me a striking bend toward materialism in both the theologies of Roberts and Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith himself said: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8) This is a surprising idea for a religion since religions are often tasked with the realm of the “supernatural”. Joseph Smith says essentially that there is no such thing as supernatural, only natural. Granted, spirit matter must be different from most matter we are familiar with since “we cannot see it”. But if all spirit is matter than we can safely surmise that it behaves in a somewhat similar way.

If God has a physical body, it should be composed of many parts, cells perhaps. Of course, resurrected bodies must be quite different from our mortal bodies. For one thing, a resurrected body does not die. Joseph Smith also taught “all [men] will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood.” [9] So resurrected bodies have flesh and bone instead of flesh and blood. If this is meant literally, then it means that the body of God is very different. Blood is mostly water in which nutrients, proteins, and substrates are delivered to our cells. This means that resurrected bodies may not even be water-based, while our bodies are mostly water. But putting these differences aside, I find the idea that my body is at least in the image of God’s quite appealing. The human body is a masterpiece. It is not simple—it is composed of many parts. But as Carl Sagan said, “the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it but the way those atoms are put together.”

The idea that God the Father is embodied and that we resemble him is not trivial. It affects the way we view God and relate to him. B.H. Roberts’ key point in proving the corporeality of God was in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a god and he had a body. As odd as it may sound, Jesus has sometimes been troublesome to Christian theology. This is because traditional Christianity has tried to reconcile the Hebrew religion in which Jesus ministered with Greek philosophy, specifically Neoplatonism. Philosopher Blake Ostler said:

“The complex of absolutist properties derived from both Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism—immutability, simplicity, timelessness, impassibility and incorporeality—was accepted as axiomatic properties of divinity even though not a single one of these terms appeared in the Judeo-Christian writings and seemed to positively contradict much of what was found therein... The notion that God became a man in Jesus of Nazareth and saved the world by suffering with, because of and on behalf of the world was difficult to reconcile with the Neoplatonic notion of God which maintained that God was absolutely unaffected by anything that happened in the world. How could such a view be squared with the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact very God? Everything the Neoplatonists meant by the word God was contradicted if Jesus was somehow a revelation of the divine nature—God was thought of as immaterial and incorporeal and yet Jesus had a material body. God did not change and yet Jesus clearly grew and changed over time. God could not suffer in any way and yet Jesus suffered.” [10]

Particularly troubling was the idea that God had a body: “For Greeks, it was unthinkable that the divine be corporeal (i.e., have a physical body). It was even more unacceptable to assert that a divine being could suffer, for the divine was simple or noncomposite and above the change and the obvious decay of order accompanying anything that could suffer.” [11] Yet while these images of Jesus did not fit into the Greek paradigm, there were still the images portrayed in the scriptures.

My view of the body is very positive. I believe that the human body is a reflection of the divine image of God. The body is not something to be despised but something to be revered and reverenced. We should take care of our bodies and appreciate them. We have the gifts of senses and sensations, joys and pleasures that come with a body and we should be grateful for them. For me, the knowledge that Jesus was both God and man is encouraging. I have something to look to and aspire to. I know the way to God because Jesus said “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father”. (John 14:9) From this I understand that the Father is a person. He is not supernatural but he is natural. He is not an ethereal vapor, or dream—that is the same as nothing. God is matter as we are matter. And we can evolve in our inborn potential to be as our Father.


[1] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Covenant Communications. 2002. p. 185

[2] Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Vintage Books. 2005. p. 420-21

[3] Ibid. p. 212-13

[4] Roberts, B.H. The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: The Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion. Signature Books. 1998. p. 11

[5] Ibid. p. 51

[6] Ibid p. 53-54

[7] Ibid. p. 111

[8] Ibid. p. 126

[9] History of the Church 4:555-56

[10] Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God. Kofford Books. 2001. p. 30

[11] Ibid. p. 421

1 comment:

  1. I have sometimes gotten interesting reactions from people, when I've asked them if they believed in the Resurrection of Jesus as represented in the Bible. They say yes. Well, did he have a body then? Yes. What happened to the body when he ascended to Heaven as represented in the Bible (Acts 2).

    I think Joseph said it very clearly that God was not always God. There were seven journals written during or immediately after the King Follett sermon. Several of them wrote "God has always been God" but the majority wrote "God has not always been God". Why did they lose the "not" in the sentence? It was so much against the ingrained creeds.

    The context clearly sets the "not" rightly in that sentence.

    Anyway, God is still Eternal; so is man, though.

    I wrote about the Co-Eternal Man a couple of weeks ago. I think that the limitations that Bruce R. McConkie set to God's progression in his Seven Heresies talk (and some other absolutist statements of his) are related to the creedal assumptions that set foregone conclusions to bind men's thinking and faith.

    Just think that man is also a co-creator! The act of sexual union is what takes humans closest to God (creating and "becoming one") is actually sacramental in nature.

    BTW that book by Karen Armstrong The Bible: The Biography has a misleading title. It's more the biography of exegesis than of the Bible.