Mormonism’s Poisoned Theodicy

Consider two theological claims. First, a severely mentally retarded child has her retardation because in the premortal world she was an exceptionally valiant spirit and her current disability means that all that was necessary was for her to receive a body and then go straight on to eternal exaltation, worlds without number. Second, in this life blacks were denied the priesthood prior to 1978 because they were not valiant in the premortal conflict with Satan.

There isn’t a great deal of sophisticated philosophical Mormon theology out there, but what little there is has been disproportionately directed toward the problem of evil, how one reconciles the injustice of the world with the love and power of God. Since at least B.H. Roberts, Mormons have pursued their finitistic, metaphysically constrained concept of God as a way of explaining at least some of the evil in the world. What has been less readily recognized, I think, is that the two claims offered above are also theodicies resting on uniquely Mormon doctrines, namely the idea of pre-existence and a premortal council/war in heaven.

In the first claim, our immediate response is to see the child’s retardation as an evil that must be explained. The claim does this in two ways. First, it redefines the evil of retardation as a good by promising the child certain exaltation. Second, it rescues God from the charge of unjust favoritism (“Why does this person get a guarantee of salvation but not me?”) by claiming that the child is getting a just reward for exemplary premortal actions. The second claim implicitly acknowledges that the denial of priesthood to blacks is an injustice, an evil that must be explained. In then goes on to do so by insisting that the evil visited on blacks is deserved because of a lack of premortal valiance.

I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn’t have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil. In a sense, it is only when evil remains unexplained that it can be confronted with a purity of intent, untainted by the reassuring argument that maybe it isn’t so bad after all. More importantly, I worry that theodicy distracts us from what is most important. Ultimately, evil is not a test of our understanding but of our character, and the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.

I find myself especially uncomfortable with these premortal theodicies. As to the second claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, I reject it outright. I do not find any support for the argument in scripture, and I think that it is pernicious in its consequences and implications. I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.

I find myself more friendly to the claim regarding the retarded child. Unlike the claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, there is at least some scriptural support for the notion that in the premortal world there were “noble and great ones,” and this particular theodicy also fits in with Christ’s promise that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And yet even here, I find myself uncomfortable with neat explanations of hardship, and attempts to push concepts of desert and justification beyond the veil. The blacks and the priesthood argument illustrates the potentially poisoned nature of this particular cup. Sometimes it may be best to simply let the mystery be.

125 comments for “Mormonism’s Poisoned Theodicy

  1. cj douglass
    January 30, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    The inability to say, “I don’t know”, I think has been the greatest mistake of the LDS since Joseph Smith. An easy assumption is that because we are the church of the Restoration, therefore we have all the answers. We don’t and we need to stop saying we do.

  2. January 30, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Alma 13 provides at least some scriptural support to the link between priesthood ordination and pre mortal merit. If you want to reject this argument you will need to address this chapter.

  3. January 30, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Although that chapter is more general, and not specifically addressed to blacks.

  4. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    It is sad that too often our explanations lead to further problems or evil in the world. Theology is a useless enterprise unless it brings us closer to God, and so many of our “deep” or difficult questions just don’t really do this. I discussed this a little further in my own take on disability. I think God wants us to understand him and will therefore teaches us at whatever place we are at. It’s the whole line upon line precept, when we are ready, we can get more. The problem is when we seek to foist our own questions and answers as the gospel truth. Our understanding is doomed to be imperfect in this existence. Without personal or group revelation, reasoning out theology and doctrines seems to be a treacherous road to heresy and apostasy if we lack humility and understanding of our limitations.

  5. Alan Jackson
    January 30, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    “As to the second claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, I reject it outright.”

    It was rejected by a living prophet in 1978 (almost 30 years ago). Setting up two ideas as similar and then pointing out that one was completely false does not make the other false.

    I’ve been taught this disability doctrine for a long time, but I’m not really sure where it came from. Does anyone know?

    At worst, we can say it is an assumption and it makes us think more of the people we encounter with those problems, so I don’t see the huge problem.

  6. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    ugh, please forgive my poor syntax and run on thoughts. I hope someone can glean some wisdom from that garbled half coherent message

  7. Alan Jackson
    January 30, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    I just read through a priesthood lesson on dealing with those who have disabilities and it didn’t mention any such doctrine — just the need for us to love and care for them as Jesus taught.

    Perhaps this is just cultural mythology and should be recognized as such. I look forward to comments from those more knowledgeable about the subject.

  8. January 30, 2008 at 12:51 pm


    I agree with your rejection of the second claim, Eric’s scripture notwithstanding (I would submit that those verses may indicate that certain individuals’ actions in the premortal realm prepared them for specific callings in this life, but I see nothing there to support the idea that that principle applies categorically to any group); and with your ambivalence toward the first.

    On the subject of theodicy, however, I find Mormonism’s answers compelling. David Paulsen (of BYU) has written extensively on this subject. In essence, he explains that Joseph Smith, without meaning to do so, apparently, wrote and preached doctrine which solve a historically perplexing, even insoluble, problem. Dr. Paulsen once said that if Joseph had never “written” anything but 2 Nephi 2, he (Dr. Paulsen) would be convinced of Joseph’s prophetic calling. I don’t know that this gives Mormon theodicy merit, per se, but I think it is a fascinating and compelling evidence of Joseph’s inspiration.

  9. Ellis
    January 30, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Idea #2 comes from a talk Alvin R. Dyer gave more than 40 years ago. If we consider that in 1978 all worthy male members obtained the right to the priesthood and this applies to deceased males as well as living males the Alvin R. Dyer concept is totally false and out of date. I am constantly surprised that people keep bring it up. It was racist then and it is racist now. Dyer based his belief on something in Genesis referring the bounds of the nations being set by God.

    I have read Alma 13 many times and I believe that all of the males in the council were foreordained to hold the priesthood and the faith etc. that they showed was only manifest after they came to mortality. I believe everyone who kept their first estate was foreordained to receive the gospel. But that is just me.

    Idea #1 is most likely something someone said to comfort parents of disabled children. It goes along with the idea that they have this disability to test those around them.

    People believe a lot of things that aren’t logical because they can’t explain something in their lives in a way that makes them feel better. As a result they adopt some of these ideas because they want to believe something other than the more correct information.

    So how many angels can dance on the end of a pin?

  10. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I totally agree. 2 Nephi 2 is very compelling. Agency, opposition, eternal progression are wonders of the restoration. It seems to me Nate is more troubled by tapping the premortal realm as an explanation for life’s apparent injustices. I have to agree this opens a dangerous door to all kinds of prejudice, rationalization and blocking of what should be our ultimate goal, healing the world and building Zion. I also see eternal progression theodicy and premortal valiance theodicy as inherently opposed in their effect on our attitudes and behaviors. It would seem that it is much more productive to look forward rather than backward in tackling the problem of evil. This ties again to the post I linked in #4. (Sorry, Nate, feel free to delete my blatant self promotion, I was just hoping it could add to the discussion.)

  11. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about the “mystery of evil.” Not that I think there is any mystery to evil. But I don’t want to treat evil as some kind of good in disguise. Mormons often have a hard time arguing that some evil might have good results without also starting to adopt the attitude that the evil isn’t really an evil. You get this a lot in Mormon attitudes towards death.

  12. January 30, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    I’d recommend (re)reading Eternal Man by Truman Madsen. Madsen makes no claims about LDS doctrine solving all issues of theodicy, but he does point out how dramatically they are recast and, to a large extent, ameliorated, at least compared to traditional Christianity.

    My personal opinion is that evil and agency are not only more complex than we imagine but (to paraphase Haldane) more complex than we can imagine. I tossed out a bone on this some time back — did agency and evil exist while we were intelligences (I think so), and if so, does that mean there are evil, un-spirit-embodied intelligences, compared to which Lucifer is a ‘Johnny-come-lately’? — but nobody bit. ..bruce..

  13. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    The root of it all is in Garden of Eden accounts, I think. Because Mormons want to reenvision Adam and Eve’s choice as unambiguously a good thing, we end up trying to explain every miserable consequence of the Fall as a blessing in disguise.

  14. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Idea #1 is most likely something someone said to comfort parents of disabled children. It goes along with the idea that they have this disability to test those around them.

    People believe a lot of things that aren’t logical because they can’t explain something in their lives in a way that makes them feel better

    Actually there’s nothing particularly illogical about the claim. I’m agnostic about it myself.

  15. January 30, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    As to the claim regarding retarded children, I am not sure what to make of it as a theological matter. As a practical matter, I have a severly retarded sister and at times I have found the claim comforting or uplifting and at times it has seemed like rather trite just-so story told in the face of a complicated and sometimes difficult situation.

  16. Josh Smith
    January 30, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    The doctrine of preexistence shrinks evil down to size–it sandwiches mortality and all its sufferings between an eternal pre-life and an eternal post-life. Any suffering in 80 years is really nothing in an eternal timeline.

    I once saw a short film called the “The Powers of Ten” (or something like that) by a guy named Eames. The experiment is to scan out from a single man at an increasing rate–the audience sees the earth, solar system, nearest stars, galaxy, universe. Whenever I see that movie I’m struck by the insignificance of man, how completely insignificant are our struggles in the vastness of creation and space. I imagine a movie placing man in the vastness of time would have a similar effect.

    That being said, suffering is real. It is impossible for me to say that my own suffering is insignificant. But the vastness of the plan does have some balm.

  17. dpc
    January 30, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    “So how many angels can dance on the end of a pin?”

    The answer depends on whether they are seraphim, cherubim or ophanim.

  18. Paul Reeve
    January 30, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Nate, this one hits close to home for me. My sister who passed away one year ago this Friday was severely mentally and physically handicapped. I have never heard any suggestions over the course of my life from anyone who knew her that her condition had anything to do with her valiancy in pre-mortal life/war in heaven. Many people have/did/do refer to her as a “celestial” daughter of God. In other words, Mormon explanations in her case tended to focus upon where she was going after her mortal sojourn ended, not where she came from.

    I centered my talk at her funeral upon John 9:2-3 with the words modified to fit her condition: “And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this [woman], or [her] parents, that [she] was born [handicapped]? Jesus answered, Neither hath this [woman] sinned, nor [her] parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in [her].

    I personally believe this scripture applies to all aspects of our differences, black, white, blind, deaf, handicapped, homosexual, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, and non believers alike. In my talk I suggested to those gathered to pay respects to my sister that an all powerful God certainly could have created her whole. He also could have created all of us of the same skin color or the same religion. Instead he created a wonderful diversity of peoples in all colors, shapes, sizes, beliefs, and aptitudes and then he sent prophets among us to teach us to get along. How sad he must be in our failure to do so. He told us that “all are alike” to Him. If we are to become like Him, is not a part of our calling to see others as He sees them? I think our diversity is a part of our earthly test. I reject, with you, the notion that skin color is connected to pre-mortal valiancy or lack thereof (and reject it for handicaps too). I rather choose to look for the works of God manifest in the rich diversity of the human family. Darius Grey told me he considered his skin color “a calling, not a curse.” Who can deny the works of God made manifest in him? If anything I see black Latter-day Saints who stick with the gospel despite the lore that could easily drive them away as far MORE valiant than people like me who don’t have to face that barrier to membership.

  19. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    What’s the surface area, geometry, and metallic constituents of the end of the pin.

  20. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Firstly, the priesthood ban because of lack of faithfulness, or the idea of “fence sitters” doesn’t even make sense with the idea that we chose to come to earth, thereby keeping our first estate. But some people couldn’t decide so God gave them the boot and decided to send them to earth? That goes against what we are taught about agency.
    So as you described, it is just our way of explaining our being bad (us calling black people bad). I think the same thing goes with people with disabilities. We describe that as bad. Or in other words, having black skin or white skin should not matter, and neither should having a disability.
    Part of the problem might be the way we view creation and evolution. If we see that God created man, and continues to create man with every conception, then we try to explain all the differences in his creation. If we take more of a deist approach that God created man-or started the process but let biology fall where it may, then I actually think LDS theology solves a lot problems about theodicy. People have different skin colors and disabilities because of biology. Full stop. We do the best we can, relying on him who is mighty to save with what we got.
    This isn’t a problem of our own theodicy, but of our views of biology and evolution. I
    I think it gets much more dicey when we try to explain people being evil to other people.

  21. Mark B.
    January 30, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I’m with cj and Forrest Gump. Stuff happens. Assigning earthly status to some premortal behavior requires several assumptions, none of which have any scriptural basis:

    1. That the earthly status is in fact a blessing or a curse. How do you know?
    2. That God in fact has established any links between premortal behavior and your particular earthly status.

    We look for explanations, and tend to manufacture them when we’re desparate.

  22. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I find the first example troubling, and the second one I totally reject.

    We often hear these sorts of things to explain so many different tragedies in life. A couple of young men in our stake were killed in an auto accident a couple of years back, and we heard all sorts of variations on these kinds of themes, such as “they were needed more on the other side”, or “they got their mission calls to the spirit world”. While those may be of comfort to some, I personally don’t find them particularly helpful. People with developmental disabilities or severe physical issues being more valiant? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

    Too much of the randomness of life seems to get in the way of being able to explain away these circumstances for me. When we start looking to the pre-existence for validation of our lives here, I think it creates problems either of elitism or feelings of unworthiness. Yet at the same time, my patriarchal blessing talks about making good choices in the pre-existence. I can’t discount that our actions in the pre-existence may have an impact here, but it gets problematic trying to tie specific circumstances in mortality to a state of which we remember nothing.

    Madsen’s Eternal Man is helpful, as was Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Both helped me understand somewhat of the theodicy of the Mormon position, and seem compatible with eternal gospel principles of agency, among others.

  23. January 30, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Anyone have a link to that excellent talk by Elder Ashton in the early 90’s about how premortality does result in blessings here in mortality but that we are poor judges of what is or isn’t a blessing? He argued, fairly persuasively, that many situations we tend to view as a curse (such as being poor) are a blessing from an eternal perspective and that many situations judged as a blessing (such as being rich in America) are a curse. It was a great talk and one of my all time favorites. I had a photocopy I often turned to but lost it last year in a basement flood. I’d love a link if anyone has it. I’ve been trying to find it at but can’t.

  24. January 30, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I outright reject both “theodicies” presented in the post. The claim regarding retarded children just seems like an extention of our general teaching that all little children are automatically exalted, which I reject for the reasons I explained in this post. My problem with explanations like these largely boils down to their reliance on “everything happens for a purpose” thinking. I just don’t think God is micro-managing everything that happens, making sure that the only children that die or become mentally retarded were noble and great in the pre-existence. I believe there is a lot of choas, choice, and uncertainty in the universe that these theories don’t account for.

  25. Gilgamesh
    January 30, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Both, I think, are wrong.

    In my opinion, when we are born and the veil is placed over us, we each bergin anew, much like baptism starts a new life on this earth. Everybody’s slate is wiped clean upon birth, there are no better or worse souls. Life creates a disparity which is remedied by the great doctrine of salvation for the dead. All people were forordained, as we do work in the temple for all the dead and all people get a chance, through moratility or after, to follow God’s plan or reject it.

    As for the “Noble and great ones” in Abraham – Ever meet a non-member that you knew would make a great bishop? I think the Lord knew who would, by virtue of their eternal souls, most likely be leaders in this life. That said, the preisthood I hold (was forordained to) and the preisthood they held is the same priesthood. Just different keys.

  26. dpc
    January 30, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    Ultimately, evil is not a test of our understanding but of our character, and the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.

    I don’t think you can separate the understanding from the reaction as easily as that. In order to alleviate suffering, I think you need first to understand the nature of the suffering.

  27. January 30, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    #9–the idea of pre-mortal valiancy long antedates that awful discourse by Alvin Dyer (which still manages to make its way into missionaries’ hands). Try Orson Hyde in 1847. This is an example of an early speculation which people started quoting, and before long it was entrenched into Mormon assumptions about race etc. There has to be a careful dismantling of the notion because it still gets cited.

  28. Ardis Parshall
    January 30, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Perhaps you didn’t mean to be all-inclusive, but since I reject *both* of the claims you cite, I want to throw in another very Mormon claim that, to me, better handles both the retarded child and blacks who were denied the priesthood. It isn’t premortal at all, but mortal and post-mortal.

    Retardation and bigotry are nothing more than manifestations of the corruption of a fallen world. The chemical or mechanical causes of retardation are tied to this world and are permitted, and neither corrected nor ordered, by God. The hatred or fear that spawns bigotry is caused by satanic deception permitted during mortality, but again neither corrected nor caused by God.

    Mormonism claims that all such disabilities that are beyond the control of the individual are covered by the Atonement of Christ, that in the post-mortal world we have the opportunity of learning and doing what we were denied in this life, of accepting the Atonement that covers not only sin but also sorrow and deprivation and the suffering caused by the sins of others, and of receiving the blessings to which we *would* have been entitled had we had relevant opportunity. There is a promise that those “who would have received it with all their hearts” will be heirs of the celestial kingdom. That includes the retarded child who could not demonstrate a faithful walk in life, and the black member who was denied the power of the priesthood during mortality.

    How can there be a better — or more Mormon — reconciliation of the problem of evil in mortality with the justice and love of God?

  29. January 30, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Paul Reeve (#18), is right on.

    The infant mortality/developmentally challenged theodicy appears to have been an ad hoc explanation by Joseph Smith. He intended to address the Saints on the subject of baptism, but a women brought the corpse of her newly dead child to the meeting. Seeing the child, Joseph spoke extemporaneously noting that it was then a time, unlike other times in the history of the world, that the Lord would take some of his most righteous spirits in their infancy to spare them the burden of mortality:

    In the early ages of the world A richeous man & a man of God & intelligence had a better chance to do good to be received & believed than at the present day. But in these days such a man is much opposed & persecuted by most of the inhabitants of the earth & he has much sorrow to pass through. Hence the Lord takes many away even in infancy that they may escape the envy of man, the sorrows & evils of this present world & they were two pure & to lovly to live on Earth. Therefore if rightly considered we have, instead of morning we have reason to rejoice, as they are deliverd from evil & we shall soon have them again. (March 20, 1844, WW Journal, 2:153

    This was later, I believe, more generally applied to all sorts of mortal problems (including retardation). Now, Joseph likely had thought about it before, knowing too well the realities of child mortality, but this specific explanation is fascinating in how temporally limited it is. I tend to think that this was a sentiment that was comforting to the grieving; but I don’t particularly find it compelling as a doctrinal truth.

  30. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Ardis said much more eloquently what I was trying to say. I think this all stems too from a kind of deterministic folk doctrine. Some examples are the Saturday’s Warrior style of marriage, fertility, or infertility and adoption. It is entirely problematic and completely self-serving. I can’t think of an instance when it is not.

  31. dpc
    January 30, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    I wonder if anyone ever thought of the internal inconsistencies of both ideas concerning valiance in the pre-existence?

    If a mental handicap is a sign that one was extra-valiant, and being black was a sign of being less than valiant, how would you explain a mentally handicapped, black person?

  32. Bob
    January 30, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Here are some of my problems on this “disabilities” question: What if you are disabled because you were shot by a cop when trying to rob a bank? What if you are disabled because of someone else’s bad behavior? Why is Bin Laden disabled?
    Here are some of my problems on the “I don’t know ” answer: Why don’t you know? Have you quit trying to know? Do you know who will be the next US President? I of those still running for the office. (See you did know.)

  33. January 30, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    BTW, the entire head of a pin discussion comes from whether or not Angels take up space. Either the answer is none, or a transfinite number.

  34. Joel
    January 30, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Maybe I’m not as logical a thinker as everyone else, but I’m not sure that I can reject the theodicy of mortal consequences for premortal actions just because some members have used it to come to undoctrinal conclusions. Is the idea dangerous? Of course, but so are many other core Mormon doctrines if misunderstood and taken out of context. It just seems that the concept of progression is too fundamentally ingrained into our theology to reject the possibility that the premortal world only mattered to the point that it got us here and provided us us a Savior and the Devil.

    I am not willing to theorize what some of the consequences might be of premortal actions, but I am unwilling to reject the possibility that they might exist.

  35. Ellis
    January 30, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you Ardis. Well said. And thank you Margaret Young. I wasn’t aware of this speculation, but it is not surprising. Interestingly enough there many free blacks in Nauvoo. I have never heard any stories of discrimination in these cases. But, I am not an expert in this area. I do have an interesting statement from Brigham Young I thought I might share. This is found in the Discourses of Brigham Young, 1925 edition p. 55.

    “Do you think that the Lord has his eye upon a great many? There is a passage of Scripture that reads thus: ‘For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren,’ etc. Whom did he not foreknow? I do not think there is anybody now on earth, that has lived before, or that will come after us, but what he knew. He knew who would be his anointed; he had his eye upon them all the time, as he had upon Moses, Pharaoh, Abraham, Melchizedek, and Noah who was a chosen vessel to build the ark and save a remnant from the flood.

    It is a mistaken idea the God has decreed all things whatsoever that come to pass, for the volition of the creature is as free as air.. . .God rules and reigns and has made all his children as free as himself, to choose the right or the wrong, and we shall then be judged according to our works”

  36. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    The problem is you have to theorize in order to make it work (and it will of course work in your favor). Anything beyond that is mere speculation.

  37. January 30, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    “So how many angels can dance on the end of a pin?”

    Seventeen. I thought everyone knew that…

  38. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    It depends on what kind of dance they’re doing. Nuance, Nate. Complexity.

  39. Ardis Parshall
    January 30, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    I can go along with Joel a little further than premortality providing us a Savior and a devil, without going all the way to “this person suffers in mortality because of his premortal experience.”

    I can, for instance, believe that certain persons were assigned certain tasks based on their valiancy (big, broad, essential-to-the-plan kinds of tasks, not micro-managing kinds of tasks), and that their mortal placement was directed in order to allow them to meet those tasks. Abraham would have had a serious challenge establishing the ancient covenant between God and his people had he been born in 17th century Tahiti; Joseph Smith may not have been able to open the last dispensation had he been born to a Jewish family in Tsarist Russia.

    I can also believe that personality traits or gospel lessons that we ingrained into ourselves during premortality might play a significant role in the way our individual lives develop. One whose premortal life was marked by humility, willingness, and the development of faith could logically be in a better position to recognize and accept the gospel during mortality than a haughty or lazy person.

    But I have a hard time going much further. I’ve been entirely too blessed, and seen or read of others who have been so shockingly, terribly, painfully victimized by evil beyond their control that I can’t believe my sheltered circumstances were the reward for anything I could have “earned” or that they “deserved.”

  40. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    I see a distinction between consequences meaning rewards and punishments, and consequences as described by Ardis. I’m on board with what Ardis described. Perhaps that is all Joel meant also.

  41. January 30, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    “It depends on what kind of dance they’re doing. Nuance, Nate. Complexity.”

    Perhaps you are right. I have always assumed that for the more complex dances they simply used smaller angels.

  42. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    I’ve reread Ardis’s comment in # 28, and have to agree. We have some extra theological problems to go along with the answeres provided by our rejection of ex nihilo creation and our acceptance of a pre-existent state, and the eternal nature of our intelligences/spirits/physical bodies.

    We know that God is not the author of evil, which is part of the problem of many other Christian denominations and their theodicies, but once we accept the concept of a pre-existence that we are banned from remembering, we end up wondering what to do with it. So we get theological fishing expeditions like those referenced here, that may provide some comfort with their folk doctrines, but ultimately don’t advance our true understanding of God, which is part of what Nate is looking for in a rational Mormon theodicy.

    It also provides some answers and many unanswered questions also on the other end, regarding the real nature of our eternal post-mortal existence. With our relatively recent reframing of the doctines of grace and the atonement, we also find that our notions abouot our works here in mortality that we are hanging all of our hopes on for rewards in the eternities, is not all that cut and dried. Certainly some of our good works will be to our benefit, but ultimately, we all require the atonement and grace that we can’t provide for ourselves. Could something similar have been going on in the pre-existence as well? That our situations here are only partially impacted by our actions there, but ultimately left either to chance or to a plan of the Father’s that we can’t remember and have yet to be told all about, or some combination?

  43. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Sorry for the various typos in my previous comment. I really can spell. It must have been something I did (or didn’t do) in the pre-existence.

  44. JimD
    January 30, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Has anyone ever tracked down the source of the story about the patriarchal blessing of the mentally handicapped child of a friend of a friend, which stated that in the pre-existence the child had personally ushered Lucifer out of God’s presence and that God had placed the disability on the child so as to protect him from Satan’s wrath?

    (Please tell me I’m not the only one to have heard the story . . .)

  45. Joel
    January 30, 2008 at 2:53 pm


    Don’t get me wrong; I completely reject the claim that blacks were less valiant in the premortal life. I am slightly more open to the idea that being born with a disability might be connected to pre-earth life. This is simply because, although it might be undoctrinal, it does not seem contradictory with more accepted doctrines. Does it provide comfort? Yes. Might it be self-serving? Yes.

    I understand the speculative problems inherent in creating such theodicies, but my perception of a just God requires that there be reasons for his intervention or nonintervention in the affairs of men. I don’t particularly know what those reasons always are, but I need to believe the reasons exist. I think that Mormons, in their readiness to claim insider knowledge in the plan of salvation often exaggerate the level of knowledge that we have about the pre-existence. Nevertheless, the idea that it existed, that agency was present there, and that the way that we exercised that agency might have consequences in this life does not seem to me to be doctrinally inconsistent with the scriptures.

  46. Bob
    January 30, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    #37/38: Obama said he would have to see Bill Clinton dance first, to know if he was the first Black President. So I guess we will have to know how many are White angels, and who is judging the contest.

  47. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Ardis (#39),
    Me too. What is the point of this idea anyway? Noblesse oblige, I was so much better than you before you were born, nyeah, nyeah, nyeah. I am valiant, I am special everyone else is less than I because I have the truth. It all seems to be motivated from a certain pride and desire to rank ourselves among all mankind. It is like a Mormon Caste system, very dangerous. I grew up in the heart of Zion and actually had lessons like this, asking why are we so blessed? All I can say is because I have been given much, I too must give. I may have no right to be angry with God, but I am not sure others can say the same, looking at this life only. The thing is there are no happy endings because there are no endings.

  48. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Part of the problem I see with the children with disabilities is that it is a limited view we are using when we claim their lives are tragedies which need to be explained away. We do not need to explain away black skin, or Down’s Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. I do not view their lives as tragic.

    The church website used to have a section for myths like that one–which is where it lived in the annals of church doctrine.

  49. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    JimD, # 44, I think you really are the only one who has heard that story. :)

    It does bring up the question, in that patriarchal blessings are often quoted as the source of these notions of the pre-existence. There are allusions to faithfulness in mine and my wife’s, but then I also find it surprising that our PB’s given several years apart, by the same stake patriarch, are similar in a great deal of their wording and promises, yet also diverge in many interesting ways. Not to start a threadjack, but how much of this kind of doctrine is given credence because “it was in their patriachal blessing?”

  50. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Go read these:

    I think PAB, or more importantly rumors of PAB fuel the problem.
    It seems to me the idea of my rewards for a righteous preexistence fall right into camp with prosperity gospel.

  51. January 30, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    I think it’s fairly obvious that Nate wasn’t trying to claim that most Mormons still believe in this argument for the priesthood ban. Rather, he’s discussing the inherent problems in various theodicies, be they current or antiquated.

  52. January 30, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I have a toddler with Down syndrome, and I utterly reject the he’s-retarded-because-he-was-extra-righteous concept. Such reasoning separates people like my son from the rest of us, and that’s unfair. He’s a person. He’s fundamentally the same as you and me. And apparently that’s a deeply uncomfortable truth for us to swallow.

    And we’re scared stiff by random nature, so we come up with lines like “special kids come to special parents.” But how many of us want to be this special? (And if this were true, why are 90% of fetuses with DS aborted?)

    I had someone tell me an anecdote about a Stake President “prophesying” that people like my son cast Satan out of heaven with their superpowers, and thus came to earth unaccountable so that Satan couldn’t get his revenge.

    People, don’t perpetuate this crap, or anything like unto it. We don’t know why some people have Down syndrome and some don’t.

    We think it’s such a tragedy for a child to have DS that we come up with an excuse for God. This only betrays our terrible prejudice. Labeling people as superhuman is just as discriminatory as labeling them subhuman.

    Suggesting that my son is here simply to coast through life and be a lesson to others is an insult. He is here to learn and grow, just like the rest of us. If his accountability is limited or even nonexistent, that doesn’t neuter his mortal experience.

    *climbs off soapbox*

  53. January 30, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Okay –

    How many seraphim can do the Cotton Eyed Joe on the head of a 19th century Japanese ivory hairpin?

  54. jrl
    January 30, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    I have heard that story about the patriarchal blessing. I dislike it for several reasons. First of all, it is probably not true. Second, if it is true, it simply has no significance for anyone besides the recipient of the blessing. It does not establish doctrine. I agree that we often latch onto stories like this to help explain things that really can’t be explained.
    For me, the only and best explanation for many things is simply that God sends us each here for our own individual test and He tailors that test to us individually. Thus, what I experience does not mean anything doctrinally for anyone else.

  55. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    none, the Cotton Eyed Joe is a one way ticket to outer darkness!

  56. dpc
    January 30, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    The real question to my mind is whether choices we made in the pre-existence affect our lives now. Obviously the fact that we exist here at all speaks to the fact that previous choices do have some significance. Whether we can extrapolate from the fact that we chose to follow God’s plan and its resultant blessing to other blessings here in this life conditioned on early faithfulness is to be seen.

  57. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    We talk about “tests” and mortality a lot. The very nature of mortality is trying. But I’m not so sure that God said, “You will go down and have cancer, or “you will be poor,” and, “your test will be widowhood.” Those can all be things simply because we live in a fallen world. If we believe our trials were tailored to us, then we end up back to, “God wanted the people to starve in Africa so that they could learn a lesson. It’s all way to reductionist and/or deterministic.

  58. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I have read only about half of the comments so far, and I was copying parts of a few responses to reference, but Ardis’ #28 said exactly what I would have ended up saying. I find great comfort in the core concept of grace as it is taught in the Church, even while I reject the speculations that have grown up around it. I hope this type of speculation is what is being pruned from the tree – and I am encouraged by the recent focus within the Twelve on not speculating as much as their predecessors did.

  59. Joel
    January 30, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    Or at least not stating their speculations publicly as fact.

  60. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    #52 – “We’re scared stiff by random nature, so we come up with lines like “special kids come to special parents.”

    Well said, Kathryn. Well said.

    I would point out that this seeking answers to the unanswerable by denying the random effects of the Fall seems to me to be a very good example of “crucifying Him afresh” – since it denies, in a very real way, the ability of the Atonement and Grace of God to make every single person (at some point in the eternities) “normal”, if you will, and give them an equal opportunity to accept or reject their Savior and Redeemer. We are taught that the Atonement saves us from Adam’s transgression, but I think too often we fail to see that this **must** logically include the **effects** of the Fall – which include the **random** physical, emotional, intellectual, etc. “disabilities” with which we each are born. Some people are born with emotional disabilities that, for them, are just as debilitating as any physical disabilities – but we have never said they were more righteous in the pre-existence.

    Short answer: Imho, we simply need to stop separating people based on biological attributes that are beyond their control (and that we are told are covered by the Atonement) and start seeing and treating them all as equals (because of the power of the Atonement). That is not a “natural” reaction, and it is not easy, but it’s what I believe the Gospel teaches.

  61. January 30, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Perhaps it is instructive to keep in mind that such questions are not unique to latter-day circumstances or Church policy.

    John chapter 9

    And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

    And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

    Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

    Further, I confess a certain distaste for the practice of referring to gospel doctrine issues using the labels associated with false precepts. Simple-minded that I am, I tend to think of the doctrines of Jesus Christ in the terms we learned in Primary.

  62. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    I forgot to add explicitly:

    By making a special case of someone else’s disability, we are, in effect, denying our own – and that is a scary, dangerous path.

  63. Mark D.
    January 30, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Clark (#23),

    I think categorizing every possible action God might undertake as either a blessing or a curse is a massive oversimplification. In particular, if he does in fact assign spirits to families, the idea that he does so as some sort of reward / punishment scheme (even an invisible one) is uniquely irrational.

    It seems far more likely that he assigns spirits to families based on some sort of plan to help save them – e.g. to mix people up according to need and ability, not distribute them according to some sort of faithfulness apartheid. That is what Jacob 5 implies, does it not?

  64. Bob
    January 30, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    #58: Ray, I guess I need to know what you mean by “speculating” since you use it a lot. Is it those things once “known” in the past, but are now “We don’t know(s)”, just old speculations, and not understandings?
    I am guessing what you call “speculating by the Twelve, is now done at BYU(?)

  65. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    The distinction comes in the last verse. Neither has sinned, but the works of God shall be manifest in him anyhow–no SO THAT (meaning God planned it) the works of God would be manifest. I’m not fluent in Greek, so maybe I am reading it wrong.

  66. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    By “speculating” I simply mean guessing about something (or putting forward one’s personal belief) when there is no clear revelation – when the “speculation” is merely an interpretation of something else.

    For example, the idea that we can become like God is, I believe, a central thread that runs throughout the entire Bible. It isn’t addressed much, if at all, in the Book of Mormon, but it is foundational to the Bible. Thus, “As God is, man may become” is not “speculation”, in my mind. “As man is, God once was” is based on an interpretation of one biblical verse, however, and is not a concept that is supported by a body of scripture. In many ways, it’s like taking JS’s statement quoted in #29 and applying it to ALL babies or those with disabilities – or even taking Oliver Cowdery’s answer as to how **he** would feel the Holy Ghost (burning and stupor) and extrapolating that to all – essentially telling all members and investigators, for example, that they too can have that same burning and stupor. There simply isn’t anything in the body of scripture that justifies that extrapolation – that speculation.

    The Church’s recent statement “Approaching Church Doctrine” makes the point that the isolated statements of individual apostles (or even a small group of them) should not be taken automatically as official doctrine. I believe that is true retroactively, as well, and applicable to scripture. If one prophet said it, take it with a grain of salt – and especially be careful of stretching it beyond what actually was said by that prophet – of “speculating” beyond the initial words. If it is not supported by an extended body of scripture, it might fit the pre-ban justifications for the Priesthood ban – nothing more than man’s natural inclination to guess or rely on their own understanding to make sense of the unknown.

  67. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    BTW, that process of “wresting” one verse to reach a conclusion that is inconsistent with the overall body of scripture is what has led to much of the apostate views on prophets, biblical infallibility, grace vs. works, defining what it means to be “Christian”, and many other issues that have fractured Christianity over the years. “Speculation” is divisive in nearly every case I have encountered; I have a hard time thinking of a case where it has led to unity and mutual support.

  68. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Ray’s comment about speculation is cogent because we are so anxious to try and explain the unexplained in a culture and religious tradition that stresses that we may “know the truth of all things”.

    Well, we don’t. So speculation becomes almost second nature, whether it is who is going to be in the new First Presidency, or why a child is retarded. I would also add that “those things once “known” in the past,” are indeed speculations, if our current doctrine contradicts them. If the twelve are more reticent in their speculations, it’s probably because of a greater awareness of the speed and reach of the media. Hence, the admonition to hold private the notes you may take in a regional leadership meeting where an apostle speaks, or other situations where it may not be appropriate to quote a general authority.

    As others, including myself, have noted, these musings on the pre-existence, while rooted in good intentions, can lead to either the elitist attitude of greater valiance, or the opposite problem of feeling unworth and we are being punished for our pre-existent choices.

  69. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    “’Speculation’ is divisive in nearly every case I have encountered; I have a hard time thinking of a case where it has led to unity and mutual support.”

    Come now! What about the Nicean Creed?

  70. manaen
    January 30, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    I recently saw in a restaurant here in LA the well-known photo of a Black former slave with huge welts across his back from whippings. For the first time, it took me to the image of Christ’s scourging and recognizing this was why Christ was whipped, “that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains […] of his people.” (Al 7:11)
    From this, (given the pre-mortal theory) I came to suppose that maybe #2 actually is part of #1: maybe Blacks were born into their plight on earth because they progressed *further* than the rest of us in the pre-mortal existence and, like disabled folks, are ready for a level of testing which is beyond what the rest of us are prepared to endure.

  71. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    kevinf, the actual words are, as you quoted, “We may know the TRUTH of all things” – NOT, “We may know all things.” There is a HUGE difference between those two statements, and the problem arises when we confuse them, as we naturally are wont to do.

  72. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    #70 – If that was tongue in cheek, it was a brilliant example of how an initial speculation can lead to multiple, contradictory speculations.

  73. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    It was tongue in cheek–but they settled on the Trinity, and wow! that is a very unifying doctrine.

  74. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Ray, # 71, You are correct, Sir!

    I’ve been struggling with my pre-existent reluctance to learn to type accurately!

  75. ECS
    January 30, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Excellent comment, Kathryn.

  76. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    I think that Mormons, in their readiness to claim insider knowledge in the plan of salvation often exaggerate the level of knowledge that we have about the pre-existence. Nevertheless, the idea that it existed, that agency was present there, and that the way that we exercised that agency might have consequences in this life does not seem to me to be doctrinally inconsistent with the scriptures.

    100% agreed. I’m very sorry that parents of Down syndrome children would take offense at the idea their child had been more than ordinarily valiant in the life before earth, and perhaps they are right to do so, but for myself I see no reason to either reject or affirm the doctrine. I find it highly unlikely that *every* Down syndrome child is suffering at random, but I have no way of proving that intuition. I do know that when our daughter suffered and died we had the spiritual impression that at least in our specific case it wasn’t wholly at random.

  77. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    It simply does not follow from the fact of a Fall that all evils or any particular evil must be *random.* And it certainly does not follow that people who think a particular suffering is not random are *crucifying Christ again.* Holy cow. I don’t see any particular reason to believe that being born mentally retarded is a protection for the sweeter spirits, but I mind people believing that a LOT less than I mind the kind of vitriol and hate that gets expressed by saints who disagree with them.

  78. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    By making a special case of someone else’s disability, we are, in effect, denying our own – and that is a scary, dangerous path


  79. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    “Speculation” is divisive in nearly every case I have encountered; I have a hard time thinking of a case where it has led to unity and mutual support.

    By your definition, this kind of statement is itself speculation, no? Or is there a clearly established set of scriptures and revelation that teach that coming to conclusions beyond what is clearly established is divisive and wrong?

    The problem with condemning “speculation” the way you do is that there is no agreement about what is speculation. No doubt you think the ideas you’ve advanced in this thread clearly follow from scripture and commonly accepted Mormon belief. I would disagree. So what you’re really saying is that someone shouldn’t teach as a truth something that they themselves know to be only speculative, which is true but won’t stop disagreements.

  80. January 30, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    Great post Nate.

    I find myself especially uncomfortable with these premortal theodicies. As to the second claim regarding blacks and the priesthood, I reject it outright. I do not find any support for the argument in scripture, and I think that it is pernicious in its consequences and implications. I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.

    This really resonated with me. I fully agree that it is preferable for us to ascribe the priesthood ban to the racism of certain leaders than to create some complex speculative explanation that devalues a lot of people in real-time.

    Paul, thank you for your comment # 18 — that resonated with me as well.

    Finally, I also wanted to thank Kathryn for comment # 52. That was powerfully said and the Church would be well served if every member could read it.

  81. Joel
    January 30, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    As far the idea of speculation. I think that all of us as we blog speculate considerably and that it is perfectly appropriate. See Alma 40:20 for an example of canonized, prophetic speculation. It is part of the injunction to study things out in our minds, and to seek truth by learning and also by faith. I think it is alright to struggle to find answers to questions that aren’t addressed verbatim in the scriptures. The problem comes when speculation is presented as doctrine. It also causes problems when individual members grab on to individual speculations out of context as gospel truth. Sometimes the problem occurs with authority; sometimes with the lay members that often utilize a GA statement as doctrine that was given in the context of opinion or speculation.

  82. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    A good friend of mine told a story that may help here. He met a woman who had joined the church some three years back, and since that time, her husband had divorced her, she had come down with a debilitating illness that left her crippled, in constant pain, and confined to a wheelchair, jobless, and trying to support two children. She asked my friend for a blessing to help her learn to love her new life, an acceptance of what happens in our mortal life.

    Ray’s comment about the randomness of life after the fall, and the efficacy of the atonement to cover ALL contingencies is in line with Ardis and Kathryn Soper’s arguments as well. We make excuses for God, when he doesn’t need them. We need to recognize that his power to save is truly available to us all. The how of it isn’t yet completely clear, and making up exceptions for special cases doesn’t help.

  83. Adam Greenwood
    January 30, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    What’s interesting to me is that this pre-earth life stuff just takes a problem that’s already in the scriptures and extends it back in time. As much as we like to pooh-pooh the prosperity gospel, its pretty clearly there in the scriptures, both for groups and for individuals. But there’s also lots of reasons in the scriptures and in experience to think that it doesn’t apply either. Job lives both sides of the contradiction, since he gets blessed and then cursed because he’s righteous.

  84. Doc
    January 30, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Mr. Greenwood,
    While Ray may have been hyperbolic, I think what he is trying to say is that disability is such a relative term, after all, who among us is perfect. Who is genetically or physically perfect? Even more rare, who is spiritually perfect? It is heartening to know that through the great physician, Christ, we may all become whole.

  85. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm


    I’ve often taken the tack that difficulties and suffering are one of the fruits of the gospel. Certainly, blessings come from obedience and good works. Those alone are not sufficient for exaltation, even though they are a significant part. However, to think that every good work is rewarded with an immediate and recognizable blessing, or every sin punished with immediate and recognizable suffering kind of takes the element of faith out of the equation, and starts to look a lot more like Satan’s plan.

    God does not remove all our obstacles, only strengthens us for the struggle, and in so doing both tries our faith and helps us build spiritual strength or capacity. Blessings often come at unanticipated times, and in unusual and unforeseen ways. It’s my “Roadsign” theory of the gospel, or more correctly lack of roadsigns. The Lord gives us a map, and expects to help others along the way, but it is not without confusion. I also view the straight and narrow path as both straight and narrow, as well as steep, clogged with boulders and fallen trees, and lined with easy, well lighted offramps.

  86. manaen
    January 30, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Ray, can’t claim brilliance: #70 was not tongue-in-cheek. The more I know Black LDS and non-LDS, the more impressed I am with their strength in their adversities.

  87. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Adam, I realized the hyperbole in my “crucifying Him afresh” comment when I typed it, but I chose to use it anyway to try to make a point – the “Zen slap”, if you will. We teach that the Atonement and God’s grace that underlies it have the power to save all, regardless of their individual “disabilities”. We also teach that all will, at some point in their eternal existence, have the opportunity to be judged on their own individual merit. When we construct speculations that are extrapolated to many from what was given to a few, we necessarily exclude others who struggle with disabilities that are just as real and difficult for them. In effect, like the Oliver Cowdery example, we end up setting conditions and expectations that might or might not apply to each individual – and we risk incredible harm in doing so.

    Personally, I know of way too many investigators who *felt* we had the truth and who had a desire to join but who waited because they were told by the missionaries that they could feel “an overwhelming burning in their bosom” – and who took the absence of such a burning as a stupor, thus never joining the Church. In very real terms, they were placed into a “disabled” category that never should have been applied – that was flawed in its very composition, and they paid a heavy price for it, imo.

    Where does it stop? Why do we exclude some and not others? What makes someone with DS or MS or a form or mental retardation or schizophrenia different than someone who is bi-polar or suffers from chronic depression or is deaf, mute and/or dumb (or blind) or any number of other inherited manifestations of the effects of the Fall? What about someone who is raised in extreme bigotry and succumbs to that bigotry through no conscious choice of their own? How do we define what is an individual exercise of agency and what is not – thus defining what is covered by the Atonement and what is not? More importantly, why do we need to make that determination? Why can’t we simply accept that Jesus will make that decision for us and treat everyone the same way within the limitations of their own disabilities?

    I am NOT trying to say that nobody is placed where they are placed because of innate righteousness – that EVERY case is random. I don’t believe that. Both extremes are speculation, imo. Individual cases very well might fit each generalization; some might be and others might not be. What I’m saying is that it is divisive to apply that speculation to ALL who are in similar situations, since we simply don’t know either way for others. All of us are disabled in one way or another; why do we need to label some and not others, separating them from us in a very real way, when all of us are in the same boat from God’s perspective? Why do we need to imply that ALL in one category are better or worse than others in different categories? I simply prefer to say, in all cases, “We don’t know.”

    I think, Adam, that we are emphasizing opposite ends of the same argument.

  88. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    #86 – Amen.

    I thought it might be tongue in cheek, since it set the old “less righteous in the pre-existence” argument on its ear.

  89. Last Lemming
    January 30, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    This thread has moved too fast for me, as I (uncharacteristically) had actual work to do this afternoon. I got as far as comment #4 by Doc and followed the link he provided. For those pondering the implications of disabilities, please follow that link. It is outstanding.

  90. January 30, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Because Mormons want to reenvision Adam and Eve’s choice as unambiguously a good thing, we end up trying to explain every miserable consequence of the Fall as a blessing in disguise.

    This is an excellent thread, but this early comment by Adam is probably the wisest and truest thing on it. The Fall was a fall, not some kind of easy, happy stumbling upwards.

  91. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I second LL’s endorsement of Doc’s link in #4. It really is excellent.

  92. January 30, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    Kathryn (#52),

    Such reasoning separates people like my son from the rest of us, and that’s unfair. He’s a person. He’s fundamentally the same as you and me. And apparently that’s a deeply uncomfortable truth for us to swallow.

    As I stated already I reject the reasoning, so we are on the same page there, but I don’t see how your claims above carry any water. Saying that certain people automatically go to heaven does not imply that they are subhuman in any sense. As I mentioned in my previous comment, we also have a very accepted doctrine that all children under the age of 8 who die will be automatically saved. Does that mean we view children as subhuman? I don’t think so. If there is evidence that we don’t view mentally retarded people as fundamentally the same as you and me, it is not this doctrine.

  93. January 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Jacob, that’s right. If we claim all children with DS were extraordinarily righteous in the premortal life, we’re giving them *higher* status than average joe and jane, not lower. My point is, this is just as problematic as the less-than-human status commonly afforded people with mental retardation in times past (which still continues today, although in our society at least there have been some improvements).

    We don’t preach across-the-board foreordination for children who die young, yet some of us preach that for children with mental retardation. The two situations are not the same. The latter holds up righteousness as a cause for the “tragedy”, the former as an effect.

  94. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    #92 – How do we establish an “age of accountability” for the disabled – a measurable point where we can say who makes it and who doesn’t? Is someone with a more severe disability more righteous than someone with a less severe disability? How do we distinguish points for varying disabilities – or for levels of disability within a specific disability? For example, how do we view those with mild autism verses severe autism? How do we determine one’s “mental (or spiritual) age or maturity” in order to make these judgments?

    More importantly, why should we try?

    Why can’t we just see them as individuals and love them for their individual uniqueness – rather than automatically placing them in am “other / them” category?

  95. Kevinf
    January 30, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    A young man of my acquaintance had severe handicaps, and left him with the mental capacity of a 4 year old. His parents and family struggled to try and keep him involved in the mainstream of life as much as possible, which became increasingly difficult as he grew through his teenage years and into adulthood.

    He’ll never be able to live on his own, but I was amazed by what he did accomplish. He participated in scouts as much as his physical and mental capacity would allow. I think he earned maybe his tenderfoot and second class badges. He was ordained to the AP, and the entire ward wept the first time he passed the sacrament as a deacon. He was later ordained a teacher and a priest, as he could articulate a testimony, and that he knew the sacrament was important, and he wanted to help people, an understanding that is not common amongst all 16 year olds.

    He could only read a few words, but he gave youth talks in sacrament meeting by making notes with pictures that would remind him of what he wanted to say. He actively shared his testimony with his friends at school, who were mostly also developmentally disabled. The father of one of his friends actually was touched by this young man’s simple testimony, and eventually joined the church, remaining active and serving in callings, even though his wife objected.

    This young man was later ordained an elder, but he ended up with a calling to help in primary opening exercises because that’s what he enjoyed most at church. In retrospect, we all benefited from watching him grow and develop, and learned much from him. His family has moved from our ward, but even though his mental capacity was limited, he had no limits on his spiritual capacity. As to the age of accountability, in his case I don’t think you could nail it down, but within the limits of his physical and mental capabilities, he was totally accountable, able to learn, and to love the gospel. He became one of us, and not “one of them”, despite the obvious nature of his disabilities. We who know him are all richer for the experience.

    I can’t always say that about myself.

  96. January 30, 2008 at 7:17 pm


    I agree with your point that we shouldn’t treat them as superhuman. I just don’t see the connection to your claim earlier that we view them as less than people. We do seem to preach across-the-board foreordination for children who die young in my experience. There must be some reason they are automatically exalted, right? The reason turns out to be (I feel confident I can go find publications which advance this logic if necessary) that they were so righteous in the pre-existence that they don’t need this earthly probation. This is a common teaching in the church, I am surprised you are disputing it. Of course, I reject that reasoning, but I hear it all the time and I don’t think it betrays any sort of discomfort with the idea that children or mentally retarded people are people just like you and me.


    Using a magic age of 8 is just as problematic as trying to decide how disabled a person has to be in order to gain automatic exaltation. Obviously people mature at different rates and accountability grows as a gradual process and not a step function on your 8th birthday. You’ll notice that in every comment so far I have made it clear I don’t believe either group has the sort of special treatment some people claim for them, so if your final comment is directed at me then it seems you didn’t read my comments.

  97. January 30, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Jacob, thanks for the dialogue. Let me try to clear this up. I didn’t say the retarded-kids-are-righteous idea had anything to do with a label of subhuman. I said “Such reasoning separates people like my son from the rest of us, and that’s unfair.” I meant that this folk doctrine holds kids with DS up as MORE than human, not less. And I believe we come up with this as damage control for ourselves, because we prefer to regard people with retardation as “different.” “Special” is another way of creating a boundary line.

    The subhuman thing refered to the way people with mental retardation have been treated in society at large.

    Make sense now?

    As for the foreordained deaths of young children: I should amend my previous statement–we DO preach it, of our own accord, but it’s not in the scriptures. It’s extrapolation. And it’s problematic. Do we really believe God arranges the deaths of all the children who die before the age of 8? imo, that’s preposterous.

    Why are little children afforded automatic exaltation? I don’t know. But I won’t work backward from that to put God in charge of the horrific things that happen to small children.

  98. January 30, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I should amend my other previous statement made in haste, about righteousness being an effect of young death. I hope that’s true doctrine, but I don’t know that it is.

    Also, Jacob, while the scriptures teach that little children have eternal life, they don’t teach that little children are exalted. We use the terms interchangeably, but I don’t think that’s accurate.

  99. January 30, 2008 at 8:12 pm


    I appreciate the dialogue as well, thank you. I think we are pretty much in agreement at this point. My original point was that I don’t believe God arranges the deaths of all the children who die (as you said) and he similarly doesn’t go around giving certain children DS for being too righteous in the pre-existence. I think we are squarely on the same page on that much.

    I get your point about subhuman being a label they used to recieve whereas superhuman is the label we tend to give them now. I don’t disagree. The part of your comment that I was reacting to (and a part that we still seem to disagree on) is the following:

    I have a toddler with Down syndrome, and I utterly reject the he’s-retarded-because-he-was-extra-righteous concept. Such reasoning separates people like my son from the rest of us, and that’s unfair. He’s a person. He’s fundamentally the same as you and me. And apparently that’s a deeply uncomfortable truth for us to swallow.

    I don’t think “such reasoning” separates people in the way you are claiming above. You are claiming that such doctrine betrays our desire to think of them as “different,” but I don’t think it betrays that at all, and I provided children-under-eight as a counter example to your claim.

    Your statements above that “He is a person” and “He’s fundamentally the same as you and me” imply that this doctrine somehow calls that into question. I don’t think it does. That is what I was taking issue with, not your later comment about the historical fact that they used to be considered subhuman.

  100. January 30, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    BTW, Kathryn, on the point about what the scriptures say: obviously D&C 137 says that they are “saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” My post on this topic (I linked to in #24) analyzes this and other scriptures on the same topic and argues that quite a bit of context is needed to interpret this scripture properly (e.g. even more than the distinction between exaltation and salvation is needed here).

  101. January 30, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Okay, Jacob. Last words: From my personal experience I’ve gotten the impression that it makes people feel better about themselves to call my kid “special” (for LDS, the premortal-righteousness thing plays a central role in this), because “special” precludes “equal,” and “equal” is uncomfy. We’re conditioned to be uncomfy around people who look and act differently from us. imo, this discomfort has played a role in the development of LDS folk doctrine. But if you disagree, fair enough. If you ever have a kid with DS, maybe you’ll change your mind. *wink*

  102. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    I agree with KLS 100% You are treading on thin ice. Would you describe a black person as “different” or “special” in the same way you would a person who is mentally retarded?
    The problem I see is that people view children with DS and other disabilities as “tragedies”. I promise that children with DS do not view their lives as tragic, but live wonderfully full lives. When people refer to children with disabilities as “different”, they are saying that their own lives, their own existence, is more valid, feeling that they can more fully enjoy the sunlight than someone with a disability. They feel bad about having what they see as a much better life, so come up with doctrines of special treatment.

  103. Keith
    January 30, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks Nate. I enjoyed reading this, including many of the comments.

    I believe we will find God has good reasons and out of wisdom and love puts us in the situations we are. That’s fundamental to my faith — that He loves and acts in wisdom, and that he knows us. Another aspect of that faith is that I don’t know all that He knows. So our earthly condition (where and how we are born, etc.) may or may not have anything to do with reward/consequence for what one did in a pre-mortal existence. It’s terribly difficult and dangerous to try and tease this out, just as it’s terribly difficult to see things that happen to folks now as either clear rewards or punishments or chastening actions that urge one to live better. The only things I think we can give a categorical yes to is that it is good if one becomes or is becoming Christ-like and that sin is the ultimate tragedy. But I think if we see things right, in most ways the question of blessing or cursing of earthly situation has little relevance to what we ought to be doing. I don’t have to worry whether God caused something, or simply let something happen, if my circumstances are a blessing or a curse, or how the pre-mortal sphere affected my condition now, etc. Whatever that is it is not determinative of (and perhaps irrelevant to) what I decide to do in response to the light I’m given now (however much that is). The light shines on all to one degree or another and each will be accountable to the amount of light – no more, no less. If I am, in one of the common ways of seeing things, blessed to have the gospel because I was “valiant” before, I will be doubly responsible for how I respond to it – more condemned if I sin against the greater light. If I was not blessed with the fullness of the Gospel, but respond positively now to the light given and follow that light, I’ll be on my way, rewarded with more light, which (if I continue to receive) will grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” Each is called as God sees fit to call.

    “How oft have I called upon you by the mouth of my servants, and by the ministering of angels, and by mine own voice, and by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind, and by the great sound of a trump, and by the voice of judgment, and by the voice of mercy all the day long, and by the voice of glory and honor and the riches of eternal life, and would have saved you with an everlasting salvation, but ye would not!” (D&C 43:25)

    I take this to mean God uses all sorts of things– natural disasters, warnings, punishments, promises of judgment and also good to come, blessings, righteousness and mercy, etc. – (whether directly caused, indirectly caused, allowed, or simply the random happenings of life) to call us to come to him. The question is what we do with the call we are given (in the various ways that will come), which will include the larger circle of what we do in response to others and the situations they are placed in. We can respond to both the best and the worst of situations in ways that will move us away from God. We can respond to those same conditions in a way that will bring us to him. He will save us and make us like him – if we are willing.

  104. January 30, 2008 at 9:15 pm


    You are treading on thin ice.

    What in the world is that supposed to mean? Seriously. I am AGREEING that we shoudn’t consider them “different” or “special” in the way that Kathryn has described. Sheesh. I happen to disagree about whether the righteous-in-the-pre-existence doctrine is evidence of that kind of thinking, but I am not challenging Kathryn’s basic point (as I have repeatedly said).

  105. mmiles
    January 30, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Sorry Jacob. I didn’t mean to be overly dramatic.

  106. January 30, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    mmiles, no worries, thanks for the soft answer.

  107. January 30, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Like Nate, I wholeheartedly reject the second premise. The first one I accept, but I acknowledge openly that I do it for no other reason than that it makes ME feel better. Ultimately, I think that is all that these beliefs do for us. When something terrible happens (ex. a couple years back, a sister missionary died in a car accident in my hometown), we say “oh, it is because they are needed on the other side.” The answer could just as easily have been “they had some terrible sin unrepented of.” The problem is that we can never know for certain which it was. But we don’t ever jump to the second conclusion (at least not for people we like), but always to the first, because it makes us feel comfortable and affirms our view of life. The second premise on blacks and the priesthood seems to comfort us for the apparent racist and exclusionary nature of our own policies. It provides absolutely no comfort to those blacks who were excluded, rather the opposite.

    I accept the general premise that choices I made in the premortal life can have some kind of effect on my life here. But I have no idea how to tell when it is a meaningful blessing/suffering and when it is simply a result of “this world.” I try to be humble enough to refuse to judge when those effects pop up in my own life, much less in the lives of others.

  108. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    #96 – Jacob, my comment wasn’t directed at you – or anyone in particular. I agree with the difficulty of the general age of accountability being absolute; I see it as a general rule to make sure parents don’t procrastinate baptism for their children and deprive them of the Gift of the Holy Ghost in their early years when they need it – since baptism at 80 for a convert accomplishes the same cleansing as it does for any 8-year-old. Iow, it’s not so much the time of the cleansing but the availability of the Holy Ghost to avoid the chains of sin, imho. It’s much like starting kindergarten at age 5 – good for some kids, not so good for others, fairly bad for some, and horrible for others – but a good general rule, nonetheless.

    It’s just that I think it’s impossible to come up with a “good general rule” when dealing with disabilities, so I would rather avoid the issue altogether and interact with each person individually. Again, even if there are some people who are given difficult disabilities due to being valiant in the pre-existence, I would rather not extrapolate that to all and continue to deal with each person as a unique individual.

  109. Bob
    January 30, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    I wish I could see a brighter day in tragedy. But I have seen too many situations that didn’t have one. The 200,000 or so that died in minutes by a big wave, will not be living in a new light, they will not becoming a better person. I can’t see any plan that put them all in that place at that time, or what they learned.

  110. Bob
    January 30, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    I am sorry as some of #109 is emotional. I am working with a friend of 40 yrs. as she dies of ALS. Maybe only weeks now, It has happened so fast. But it is hard to think, as we lift her by chains from the bed to her wheelchair, that she is going to be a better person for this, or it’s some kind of reward for her.

  111. SusanS
    January 30, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    You are where I have been for a long time. I just can’t assent to the notion that God requires that I give up on a basic gift that humans have–the ability to reason. Presumably a gift God gave us. I just can’t believe that something being irrational makes it likely to be true. That I earn a badge of faith by embracing the irrational, turning away from my reason. The excesses of religion are heaped in this place.

  112. Ray
    January 30, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    #110 – Amen. This is one case where “it just is” strikes me as the best answer – that all of us can learn from it without it being any kind of reward.

  113. January 31, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Nate: I believe that the pre-mortal existence is actually a powerful part of the explanation of the possibilities for theodicy in Mormon thought. I have had numerous conversations with those who have had children die, born disabled, and faced horrendous challenges who have testified that agreements made in the the pre-mortal existence played a role in confronting these challenges. I testify to the same with challenges I have faced.

    The fact is that when children are born into families that have a long history of abuse, God knows that they will face challenges and abuses that others may not. God knows that children will be born to addicted mothers and broken families. He knows that some children will be born in circumstances where it is unlikely in extremis that the gospel will play a role in their lives. I am convinced that God places us in situations where we can benefit from our mortal experience by learning, growing and loving and that he has taken such circumstances into consideration and given us circumstances conducive to what we have consented to learn.

    The type of deistic deity who doesn’t intervene but merely gets the creation going and then lets it take is natural course is worlds apart from the God whose “hand is in all things.” In fact, if I understand our scriptures at all, God is not pleased when we don’t acknowledge his hand in all things.

    In fact, the pre-mortal life allows us to explain that when we are given the gift of learning to care for others because of their extreme challenges, God is not merely using them to benefit us, but perhaps they agreed to be a means to allow us to learn from caring for others. Perhaps not. It allows us to explain that we consented to the challenges we face, even if we could not fully grasp what mortal pain was as pre-mortal spirits. Perhaps those who are in pain don’t learn from their experiences but merely offer the opportunity to others to learn from their challenges. The pre-mortal existence opens up the possibility that the person who undergoes the painful experiences consented to teach and allow us to learn from such experiences.

    Now no theodicy ought to be asked for God’s actual reasons that evils or challenges occur. We don’t know. However, the purpose of a theodicy is to place the experiences of our lives into a perspective such that we can give meaning to our experiences and find meaning in them. I don’t believe that our beloved black brothers and sisters were denied the priesthood for anything they did in the pre-mortal experience. It was our prejudice as a people that fully explains that. However, God certainly knew that blacks would be born into a world where the Church denied blacks the priesthood. Is it so unthinkable that our black brother and sisters would consent to experience such injustice so that members of the Church could learn about love and prejudice? In any event, I am thankful for those who challenged us as a people to give up our bigoted practices.

    Finally, the simple fact is that mentally challenged individuals are not equal in moral accountability, ability to marry and ability to grow through intellectual pursuits. God knew when they were born that they would have such a genetic disability. I believe the revelations of Joseph Smith (D&C 138 and others) that say that they are not held morally accountable and that babies that die in infancy will be exalted. I don’t consider any of the arguments that such a result is somehow unjust or not befitting for God or those concerned. I’m sure that there is more than is dreamed of in our philosophies to account for such facts.

  114. Roy
    January 31, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    “I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young”

    Here you are assuming a motive, i.e. racism, to the policy. Was Christ then “racist” (whatever that really means) when he limited the preaching and attendant blessings of the Gospel and the Priesthood to the House of Israel during his mortal ministry? The very name of this blog alludes to “a time and a season” for everything. I don’t believe Peter was “racist” for carrying forth the gospel primarilly to the Jews until he received a specific revelation otherwise. Clearly the time had come, and from the available recod he embraced the new policy and implimented it promptly. I also reject murmurings I’ve seen in other posts here that Harold B. Lee was too “racist” to ever allow the priesthood to go to all worthy males, and that therefore God had to “play the death card” to get President Kimball in place before it would happen. There is no doubt from scripture that there have been groups of people who have been denied the blessings of the Gospel by God at particular times. Why? We have not necessarilly been told. However we accept that God is perfectly just, and that at some “time and season” all who will/would have accepted the proferred blessings will have the opportunity.

  115. Bob
    January 31, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    #113: “….no Theodicy ought to be asked for God’s actual reasons that evils or challenges occur.” But that’s what Theodicy is (?). It is a Secular way for looking for answers not provided by Christian thought. I do agree Mormonism also tries to be the same. I problem I have with my reading of your #113, is that it leaves out free will, accident, and happenstance. (Also, a possible reading there were blacks in the pre -mortal state).

  116. January 31, 2008 at 2:17 pm


    “Why can’t we just see them as individuals and love them for their individual uniqueness – rather than automatically placing them in am “other / them” category?”

    Perhaps the fact that this is a point of debate is an indicator.

    In some ways, I think we must attribute this problem to the limited grasp of human understanding. We assure each other that Heavenly Father loves each of His children impartially, is “no respecter of persons”. But, we are not so endowed. The capacity to fully understand and appreciate the multitude of talents and attributes that makes up each individual is far beyond human attainment. With our limited spiritual and intellectual capactity, we do the best we can.

    Thus we come up with general rules like eight years old for the “age of accountability”, though everyone can easily see that this rule does not apply, in every specific. In order for general rules to function equitably, there must be an “other” category to handle the exceptions.

    Recognizing that there are exceptions does not invalidate the rule. It only underscores the importance of “spirit of the law” considerations.

  117. January 31, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Bob: # 115 “But that’s what Theodicy is (?). It is a Secular way for looking for answers not provided by Christian thought.”

    No Bob, that is not what theodicy is. It is unreasonable to ever ask someone to describe God’s actual reasons for why any specific evil is allowed. The most that theodicy aspires to is to give a theoretical framework from the perspective of faith in which possibilities as to why God may allow evils to occur or why such things are not evil in further consideration. I assure you that I don’t leave out free will and accident. However, I don’t believe that anything that occurs is outside the scope of God’s plan. You might want to check out my website where I have a paper on theodicy that was published in a Fetschrift in Honor of Truman Madsen. It so happens that we exercise free will in the pre-mortal existence when we consent and agree to undergo certain kinds of experiences. There may be a good deal that is beyond God’s power in LDS thought, but rearranging DNA, stopping speeding cars and curing cancer are not among them.

  118. mmiles
    January 31, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I agee with 100%. Thanks for jumping in.

  119. Bob
    January 31, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    #117: I will give you your definitions of “theodicy’. You have certainly have earned them, and I have not. But I will hold open my thinking on free will stops, DNA, accidents, and the ‘course and scope’ of God’s plan.

  120. Bob
    January 31, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    That when Free Will starts and stops.

  121. Wade
    January 31, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    “I find myself especially uncomfortable with these premortal theodicies.”

    Indeed. How does one who actually ascribes to this line of reasoning explain the status of all the severely mentally retarded black male children throughout the world who lived and died between 1830 and 1978? Perhaps they were so valiant in the premortal battles that God sent them into the world as black males simply to undermine this line of reasoning which is fundamentally flawed (because they would be exalted anyway right)?

  122. January 31, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Wade: the answer is: We don’t know what God’s actual reasons may have been. It is possible that they were so valiant that they needed only to obtain a body and that would fulfill the purpose of their existence. It is possible that they agreed to be the means so that others could learn. It is possible that nature just took its course. What is wrong with any of that? Your argument is really just a statement of disbelief and doesn’t show anything about why such reason is “fundamentally flawed.” In fact, thinking that you have given a reason when you’ve only made statement is fundamentally flawed reasoning. And why focus on the severely mentally retarded black males?

  123. Wade
    January 31, 2008 at 9:05 pm


    And why focus on the severely mentally retarded black males?

    Your question explains your difficulty in comprehending my point. I’ll spell it out for you: pursuant to basic rules of logic it is fundamentally flawed reasoning to assert that blacks were denied the priesthood due to their alleged equivocation or ambivalence in the premortal war while simultaneously explaining that those born with mental retardation were born with their condition due to their valiant efforts in the war. To so argue is to undermine the very premises upon which the categorical syllogism rests in the first place. Why? Simply because mental retardation unfortunately inflicts males from African descent as well as all other races in the world. In other words, you can’t have it both ways. To put it still another way, one who actually believes this line of reasoning is under a double-dose of cognitive dissonance!

  124. January 31, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    Wade: I’m so glad that you spelled it out for me so that all of those years of teaching logic must have been lost on me. No it isn’t a logical flaw or to assert that mental retardation is due to any condition, including pre-mortal existence. A logical contradiction requires two propositions that are not logically consistent so that one denies what the other affirms. You haven’t shown that. There is no logical mistake in argumentation, and contrary to your claim, cognitive dissonance isn’t necessarily a logical problem. Nor does it undermine any premises to assert that black males, together with others, are mentally challenged because of agreements made in the pre-mortal life. Admit it, you don’t know what a logical problem would be, do you?

  125. January 31, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I am going to close down comments on this thread now. Thanks to everyone for their participation.

Comments are closed.